In the world of classical guitar music, we still have many unique musicians flying under the radar; some are flying around the world featuring at major festivals, in prime classical music performance centres, alongside the best known and celebrated artists. Derek Gripper has established himself as a unique classical guitarist, performing with legendary John Williams and kora maestro Toumani Diabete, but stands tall as a creative and inspiring musician leading the way with his innovative transcriptions and translations of West African kora music. Flying in from South Africa for a 20-concert Australian tour, Gripper was such a joy to hear, and there were only a few empty seats in the very comfortable yet little known performing space of Mt Eliza Community Hall.
Although the 21-string kora combines features of the lute and harp, the traditional modal melodies of African songs provide a rich source of lyrical patterns and potential for Western stringed instruments. As a master of classical guitar technique and immersion in the authenticity of Malian music, Gripper appears to do the impossible, adding many varied instrumental tones, layers of African rhythmic patterns and magical woven blend of polyphony and polyrhythm, turning his guitar from being a solo instrument into an astonishing ensemble. Even the kora maestro Toumani Diabeté once asked for confirmation that Gripper’s performance was indeed just one person playing. With varied and open tunings and lowered bass notes, just a touch of amplification strengthened traditional earthy patterns, and established the resonance usually enhanced by the kora’s gourd.
Gripper’s opening work was reminiscent of a flowing Bach prelude, with increasing layers of melodic patterns describing a colourful song Ana Na Ming, by Mali singer-songwriter Salif Keita. Repeated ostinato patterns were distinctly coloured, developing an African ambience, with a segue into Gripper’s own elegant and sensitive complementary work, Ana. Gripper is a wonderfully warm and relaxed speaker, a born story-teller, a traveller to remote parts of the world, who is able to relate deeply through his music and its connection to natural environments. Duga (Vulture) is one of the oldest and most widespread songs in West Africa, a song of praise for warriors and hunters. Gripper’s solo began with an energetic freewheeling cadenza, full of the assertion and bravado felt in fiery Spanish and Flamenco cadenzas. Short upper melodies came with a biting top string tone accompanied by short, varied and energetic counter rhythms and supportive flowing chordal accompaniment. When Gripper first heard kora player Tomani Diabaté playing the popular song Jarabi (Beloved), he “heard many instruments playing at once” and he did indeed replicate a highly colourful and expressive arrangement, convincing us there surely were two performers not one. Reminiscent of Bach’s Chorale Preludes, strong melodies were supported by many accompanying contrapuntal and rapid improvisatory passages.
A finely curated program took us next to a more contemporary classically styled work by Gripper, Joni, inspired by Cape Town’s most beautiful forest and dedicated to Joni Mitchell. Highly technical and virtuosic, the opening free improvisatory layers of strong melodic riffs and repeated light accompanying tremolos grew into a solid range of earthy repetitive elements and assertive bass figures. Preceding Moss on The Mountains,Gripper shared his experiences when hiking in remote regions, his anecdotes showing the humour and passion that inspired this energetic, almost programmatic work, with contemporary harmonies and lofty high climbing or descending hypnotic and repeated patterns. Original works Seeing Nobody (connected to Covid times) and Koortjie (a song about whales) wove together complex melodic patterns with incisive African percussive ostinatos and strong lower bass fragments. Traditional-like drone effects and harmonics added the flavours of the kora’s influence and resonance.
Fifty-Six, a traditional Malian piece by Ali Farka Touré was a true delight, with floating, mesmerising varied string tones and overlays of spell-binding polyrhythms and flowing lyrical phrases. With eyes closed I was convinced that surely there was more than one person playing this piece!
Gripper related his memory of hearing a four-year-old Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, so this was essential Baroque repertoire for Griffen to share his mastery of classical technique, the first movement performed with grace, nuance and ease. Most interesting was his inclusion of Manuel de Falla’s Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (Homage to Claude Debussy) (1920), which was gently impressionistic, innovative and contemporary in structure, imbued at times with a free Andalusian spirit and fragments of Debussy’s La Soirée dans Grenade. Sadly, it was written as a tribute after Debussy’s death, leaving us to wonder if his late interest in the guitar didn’t allow him time to create an influential body of guitar works.
Today however, we were full of great admiration for Gripper’s innovative, colourful and creative vision, and showing the timeless wonder and brilliance of the classical guitar.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Derek Gripper: Music of the Strings of Mali”, performed at Mt Eliza Community Hall on January 23, 2024.