Album Review | Top of the World | Derek Gripper – One Night on Earth: Music From the Strings of Mali
Words by Nigel Williamson
Years in development, this fine recording is the result of white South African musician Derek Gripper having transposed seven kora (West African harp) 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.
TRACK TO TRY: Kaira
(On New Cape Records)