By: Matthew Warnock
When I was first turned on to South African guitarist Derek Gripper, to be honest I didn’t know what to expect. Was the music going to be African in nature, or featured a more American background? I had read that Gripper studied in India, so was his music going to follow the Raga and Indian classical music tradition? He has acknowledged the influence of Brazilian composers and performers such as Villa-Lobos and Egberto Gismonti, and so would these influences come out in Gripper’s writing? The answer to all of these questions, as I was to find out, was yes.
A multi-faceted writer and performer, Gripper draws influence from the rich history of African, Indian, Brazilian, and to a lesser extent, American music. By bringing together musical influences from these varied geographical locations, Gripper has been able to showcase the beauty that each country has made to the global music zeitgeist, while at the same time inserting his own unique approach to the guitar and composition in a way that defies categorization. Gripper’s personalized voice on the guitar comes out to the fullest on his latest recording, The Sound of Water, a collection of tracks written by the South African guitarist, as well as arrangements of works by Villa-Lobos and Gismonti.
One of the things that allows Gripper to stand out against the crowd of modern guitarists, are the vast array of sounds that he can draw from the instrument. Using altered tunings, non-traditional techniques and percussive sounds, Gripper is able to transcend the instrument with his performances. The guitar becomes the vehicle for his artistic output, but it is not the centerpiece, the music itself is. One could easily imaging arrangements such as “Dance of the Heads,” written by Gismonti, working as an orchestral piece and be just as energetic and successful as they are on the guitar. Not to take away from Gripper’s ability on the instrument, which is absolutely world-class, but his voice is so personal, so unique, that it leaps from the speakers and goes beyond the instrument itself.
Gripper also brings a huge amount of intensity and emotional energy to his playing. There is never a note wasted or phrase played that isn’t carefully sculpted to bring out the artist’s full emotional intent for that moment in time. Pieces such as “Copenhagen,” written by Gripper, are great examples of this approach. There are moments where the guitarist uses loud volumes to drive the energy forward, yet this isn’t always the case. There are moments of great intensity where the volume drops down and the tone, timber and notes/harmony take over to bring the level of energy to the next level. Regardless of how he achieves it, Gripper’s music is full of an energy and drive that is contagious, and that will remain with the listener long after the music has faded from the speakers.
Sound of Water is a remarkable record by Gripper that showcases his extraordinary abilities as a composer, arranger and performer. With such a strong release, it is only a matter of time before Gripper becomes recognized across the globe for his contributions to modern guitar performance and composition.