Derek Gripper: Finding the New Cape
AAJ: You mentioned, at one point, that Alex viewed Afrikaans as a space to explore identity and help define the new dialogue in South Africa. This concept may be a bit of a surprise to many abroad, where Afrikaans is often viewed as inextricably tied to the apartheid government. But the reality, of Cape Town in particular, was certainly much more nuanced, no?
DG: Exactly. Even to me, growing up, Afrikaans was the enemy. It was the English against the Afrikaans (the Boer War) and then the Afrikaans against everyone (Apartheid). All these silly battles and divisions. There are millions of black people who speak Afrikaans, but they wouldn't call themselves "Afrikaaners" because that got reserved for white Afrikaaners. Vastrap helps to make this Afrikaans thing even more blurred, because it's magical. And even the white musicians who play vastrap are magicians.
I saw an interesting clip about some studies about improvisation and the brain. Apparently improvisation activates the linguistic areas of the brain. Of course they haven't had a vastrap musician in the CAT scan yet, but if they did they would find a new part of the brain, and the linguistic areas would be very quiet. Perhaps they would even crawl away somewhere.
AAJ: Alex van Heerden is clearly quite central to your own work and development. This fellow seems to have been everywhere at oncedoing albums like Sagtevlei with you, jamming with [Cape Jazz pioneer] Robbie Jansen, doing techno albums, and fronting a psychedelic rock band. What was his own introduction to the music, and how did you two initially meet?
DG: When Alex died, I suggested we hold a number of funerals, as he struggled to be tied down to a single identity. But the Cape thing, and the interest in this place was what held it all together. Alex and I met on Robben Island. We played for Nelson Mandela when he first came back onto the island. Walter Sisulu was there too. I didn't know what Alex was up to, but I phoned him up soon after we met and suggested we get a camera crew and travel around playing with rural musicians. I didn't realize he had been doing this for years already! Then I got a call to put together a string quartet collaboration for a live recording at the SABC [South African Broadcasting Company], and I saw the opportunity to get our collaboration going.
So we got together on the farm which gave the CD its name, and we realized that we had a really strong musical connection. This was a fearless space of pure creativity: a place without doubt, without complexity, a meeting of souls and a celebration of being where we were. We got seriously high on the whole thing, soaking in sunlight, swimming in the dam, dancing in the forests, listening to old Boeremusik LPs, and playing by the fireside under the stars...and getting together for about 30 minutes every day to pen a complete movement of the piece which would become Sagtevlei. Then we took this energy and unleashed it on a few classical musicians with our old friend Brydon Bolton playing bass.
Shame, the audience didn't quite know what hit them! I'd say we divided the room in two that night. Those coming for a ghoema string quartet were perhaps disappointed. I think what we gave them was a rediscovery of the roots of ghoema.
AAJ: Yes, I was thinking anyone expecting a banjo rendition of (classic ghoema song) "Alibama" must've been in for a hell of a shock.
DG: [Laughs] We felt so pleased after. It was like we had given birth to something totally new, and we had done this by being completely honest. For Alex, it was very emotional, as he was someone who had an unbelievable talent for giving people what they wanted. He could seduce anybody! And I think this was one of the first times he carried out his seduction entirely on his own terms, rather than feeling out the adversary and giving them what they wanted (even if they didn't know what they wanted themselves!). And when the music was unanimously well received, he was pretty hurt. The producers didn't like it at first, and this really affected him. Later, however, they raved about it: it is music that takes time to seduce you.
AAJ: You then took this collaboration with Alex to Europe. How did that come about?
DG: Well, we spent the year after Sagtevlei meeting almost every day. We had no idea of where to go next. South Africa isn't a place where you can make a living playing music like Sagtevlei. We experimented with a duo format, using guitar for the first time (which is the roots of what later became my New Cape Guitar thing), and then Alex decided to go to Europe and follow up on the electronic music projects he had started there before we worked together. I decided to leave South Africa too for a while and he persuaded me to come to Sweden. So we spent a month in the North, in a desert of ice, and then a month in Stockholm. We worked with Magnus Johansonn, who is now a dear friend, and we made a CD called Hemisfar, where we tried to map similarities between what we had started with Sagtevlei and what interested Alex in the electronic movement. It is finally being released this year, so many years later.