Derek  Gripper
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Derek Gripper

Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa | INDIE

Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa | INDIE
Solo World Classical

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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.
- Guitar International


We are told that Derek Gripper is the only guitarist in the world who can do justice to the complex, unique music of the Malian griots who play that remarkable instrument called the kora.

Not being an expert in this area, I will have to take this on faith. It is a faith that is easy to attain when listening to the streams of perfect, transcendental music pouring from Gripper’s guitar in the simple, stark environs of the Old Slave Church in Cape Town.

The occasion was the launch of Gripper’s ninth album, One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali. Gripper’s albums are self-financed and he is one of the great bricoleurs of South African music. He has collaborated with musicians in a wide spread of genres from all across the world in an attempt to find new directions for South African music.

One Night on Earth features six-string guitar versions of compositions by kora masters such as Toumani Diabate and Ballaké Sissoko. To appreciate the complexity of Gripper’s undertaking, it is probably necessary to explain the kora.

It is a 21-string instrument and, according to Gripper, “one of the most ­complex instruments in Africa, an instrument able to perform bass lines and harmonic accompaniment while simultaneously improvising virtuosic melodic lines, creating the impression of a three-piece ensemble on just one instrument”.

Doing sublime justice to this music on six strings is an incredible achievement.

The Old Slave Church in Long Street was built in 1804 and reflects some of the complex nomadic history of Cape Town’s origins. At one point, Gripper comments on these journeys (he calls it transculturation) that bring and bind the peoples of Africa together, specifically the one that has brought him to this point of espousal for this wonderful West African music. He illustrates it by playing, on a classical guitar in South Africa, a griot’s version of a UB40 song.

He also pays tribute to the journeys made by his fans to the concert (the venue is packed to the rafters and this is a church, so it actually does have rafters) many of whom seem to have come either from the south peninsula or possibly 1983.

Found in translation

Cape Town has not seen so many rustically dressed people in one spot since the great hippy migrations of the 1970s and in an odd way it makes the music seem even more exotic. And more pleasurable. It is comforting to know that, as with Gripper himself, there are still mavericks in the world.

A comedian once said: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” He probably meant that you cannot do it adequately, but I have seen many dances about architecture that worked very well.

The point, though, is that using one language to describe another is a difficult undertaking. I am not just referring to my necessarily doomed attempts to convey the beauty of Gripper’s music, but to his enormously successful translations of kora music to guitar.

He explains the problem he faced. “There seemed to be no way even to echo what I was hearing: one instrument played by one person, with different voices playing in different times, with melodies that exploded in impossibly fast configurations. It seemed impossible to reproduce the rhythmic complexity of a 21-string African harp, played by the world’s great virtuosos, on a simple six-string guitar.”

And yet Gripper succeeds beautifully. The acoustics in the Old Slave Church are rich, giving a spare yet voluminous cast to the sound. The hard wooden pews are hellishly uncomfortable, yet appropriate for the relationship the audience has to the music. There is much enjoyment, but this music is more about Agape than Eros. As with the excellent album, it is music that leaves you feeling a little more than human, a little better than human.
- Mail and Guardian


Here’s one you didn’t see coming. An adventurous classical (and more) guitarist from outside Cape Town, South Africa, discovers Malian music when a friend hands him a copy of Toumani Diabate’s 1987 solo album, Kaira, about ten years ago. Gripper becomes obsessed. He does not go to Mali, or attempt to learn colloquial Malian guitar technique. He has a go at playing the kora itself, but abandons it quickly. Instead, Gripper resolves to transcribe and study Diabaté’s and other kora performances, and to score and “translate” them for his classical guitar.

The result is astounding, not just for its technical brilliance, but its musicality. Gripper executes these pieces with the precision and attention to detail one might expect from a great classical musician, but there is nothing stiff about these performances. He swings hard while laying into Diabaté’s version of “Jarabi” from The Mande Variations. His dynamics are visceral, and when he renders the improvised introductions to kora performances as if they had just sprung into his own head. It sounds that natural.

Seven of Diabaté’s pieces are bookended by selections—two each—from Ali Farka Toure and from Ballaké Sissoko’s and Vincent Segal’s collaborative CD Chamber Music. These tracks provide welcome variety, though Gripper’s razor-sharp precision is perhaps less well suited to Farka’s freewheeling style than to the kora repertoire.

This CD was recorded at night in a church in Knysna, a seaside town some hours outside Cape Town. The recording has an airy, organic feel. One could imagine richer sound quality with better microphones and preamps, but no matter. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive and passionate rendering of Malian music on classical guitar, particularly from a person who has done it all his own way.
- Afropop Worldwide


Years in development, this fine recording is the result of white South African musician Derek Gripper having transposed seven kora (harplute) compositions by Toumani Diabaté and several other West African pieces for six-string solo classical guitar. After painstakingly transcribing Toumani's records, note by note, 'as though it was a composition by Bach or Villa-Lobos,' Gripper then embarked on the intense process of absorbing the intricate themes, cycles and ornamentations of his playing and working out how the vast possibilities of the kora could be presented on six strings. Gradually technique and understanding came together and, listening to the album, it's clear that Gripper has cracked it. Recorded in a single all-night session, his playing has a depthless beauty, which does full justice to the complexity of Toumani's compositions. To do so without any hint of the music being dumbed down is a staggering achievement on solo guitar, given that the kora's 21 strings enable the player to perform bass lines, harmonic accompaniment and melodic lines simultaneously.

This reviewer's initial reaction was that, while it is undoubtedly clever and virtuosic, why would anyone want to listen to Gripper's guitar transpositions rather than Toumani himself playing the material on kora? Repeated playing, however, persuaded me it's not a case of either/or: Gripper's record genuinely complements Toumani's music, and the more resonant sonorities of the guitar give the record its own baroque attraction. For good measure, he adds versions of two guitar pieces by Ali Farka Touré. Gripper's extensive liner notes are a tour de force, too – it's one of the most perceptive and insightful pieces ever written about the kora and the compositional qualities of Toumani's unique music. - Songlines Magazine


Discography

ONE NIGHT ON EARTH: Music from the Strings of Mali, music by Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Vincent Segal, Ali Farka Touré, 2012
THE SOUND OF WATER, music by Derek Gripper and Egberto Gismonti, 2011
RISING, with Udai Mazumdar, 2010
KAI KAI, compositions for solo guitar, 2009
PRAYERS AND DANCES II, Bach, solo guitar, 2009
AYO, compositions for solo guitar, 2009
SONGS FOR THE SWANS LEFT BEHIND, Frankfurt, vinyl release, 2009
ALE!X, with Alex van Heerden and Brydon Bolton, 2009
BLOMDOORNS, eight string guitar, 2003
SAGTEVLEI, with Alex van Heerden, 2002

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Bio

Derek Gripper released his ninth album, One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali, late in 2012, an album of kora interpretations that astonished John Williams into saying he thought it was “absolutely impossible until I heard Derek Gripper do it”. When Kora maestro Toumani Diabate heard these recordings he disbelievingly asked his host and producer Lucy Duran to confirm that she had actually seen one person play this music on just one guitar. Recorded at an all-night session Gripper’s guitar magically conjures anew a centuries-old ancient African musical heritage.

One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali, captures Gripper’s extraordinary six-string interpretation of Toumani Diabate’s 21-string Kora compositions. Gripper’s “guitar has found the Kora-playing spirit, he captures the magic bound up in the way it is played”, says Williams, who has invited Gripper back a second time to collaborate in “The John Williams Series” at the Globe Theatre, London in June 2015.

Interpreting the compositions of three of Mali’s greatest instrumental virtuosos: kora players Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko alongside the music of guitarist Ali Farka Touré, this album created a new form of classical guitar music and a new take on one of Africa’s most complex musical traditions. The UK’s top world music  publication Songlines Magazine called One Night on Earth ”a staggering achievement,” and selected the recording as a Top of the World album in 2013. Derek is currently working on a duo project with world famous guitarist John Williams.

The reception of One Night on Earth has led to invites to play in the US, UK, Turkey, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Ireland, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and of course in Derek’s home of South Africa.

“Five stars…Gripper has brilliantly transferred [the kora] repertoire onto a regular six string guitar. He sees [Toumani] Diabaté as the Segovia, or indeed John Williams, of the kora, championing it as a solo instrument. And Gripper brilliantly takes it back to the guitar. He’s opening a whole new repertoire of classical guitar music…bringing African guitar into the classical mainstream.” [Simon Broughton]

Classical Guitar Magazine called Derek’s 2011 recording of original compositions set alongside the works of Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti “an excellent album…of hypnotic beauty” whilst Guitar International says of the same album that Derek’s world class ability “is able to transcend the instrument itself.” Derek met Gismonti in London in 2014 and the composer immediately offered produce a recording dedicated to Derek’s six-string interpretations of his piano and ten-string guitar works.

“Gripper has cracked it…his playing has a depthless beauty, which does full justice to the complexity of Toumani’s compositions. To do so without any hint of the music being dumbed down is a staggering achievement on solo guitar.” [Nigel Williamson, Songlines Magazine]

“More than a labour of love, Gripper has brought a new purity to the dream-like improvisatory nature of these compositions. My recording of the year, so far!” [Tim Panting, Classical Guitar Magazine]

”The result is astounding, not just for its technical brilliance, but its musicality. Gripper executes these pieces with the precision and attention to detail one might expect from a great classical musician…It’s hard to imagine a more impressive and passionate rendering of Malian music on classical guitar.” [Banning Eyre, Afropop Worldwide]

“A true synthesis and a great album.” [Ian Kearey, fRoots]


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