This article originally appeared in #117.
The South African guitarist Derek Gripper is intent on bringing new audiences to Mali’s kora repertoire. Simon Broughton talks to him, on his first visit to the country to meet the instrument’s most famous player
Every professional musician is devoted to their craft, of course. The hours, days, years of practice, intensely refining the technique and the artistic vision. But sometimes you meet someone whose devotion seems to go way beyond the call of duty. Derek Gripper is a formidable classical guitarist who has played the sublime music of Bach and Villa-Lobos, but 15 years ago he heard a recording of Toumani Diabaté and realised that it was kora music that he really wanted to play.
I first meet Derek Gripper in 2012 in Cape Town, his native city, and am hugely impressed by his all-consuming ambition. I then discover that John Williams, one of the world’s greatest classical guitarists, is also a fan. He’s invited Gripper twice to play at his brilliant series of guitar concerts at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre in London.
It’s been a long journey, both musically and physically, but I recently meet Gripper at the defining moment of his kora quest – when he finally meets up with Toumani Diabaté at his Festival Acoustik Bamako in Mali earlier this year. It’s long after midnight and Gripper and Toumani are alternating kora riffs in the plush, cushioned sitting room in the Bamako compound where Toumani’s kora students are based. Round the edges, the room is lined with big sofas where, I imagine, his disciples gather to hear the master play.
Toumani seems more impressed by Gripper’s devotion than his ability. I guess Toumani is used to hearing magnificent kora and guitar playing every day – it really is a natural resource in Mali. But Toumani’s undeniably impressed by the incredible work he’s done. Particularly when Gripper pulls out written transcripts and arrangements of Toumani’s music. “My white twin,” Toumani says. We all laugh, but realise it’s pretty much the best commendation you could get.
This is Gripper’s first trip to Mali. Apart from the meeting with Toumani, the other thing that strikes him is the way people in Mali still really listen to music. “In South Africa people are just talking, they don’t shut up and when you’re playing you are like wallpaper. Here people really listen. They concentrate. Music speaks like a language.” Despite the continuing state of emergency, music is everywhere in Bamako – there are festival performances, lots of gigs and bars with music late, late into the night.
Derek Gripper learned violin and piano at school in South Africa, became a bassist in a rock band and started playing classical guitar aged 15 or 16. He was given a copy of Toumani’s album Kaira when he was first heading off to Europe in 2001. “I’d listened to Salif [Keita] and Baaba Maal, but I’d never even heard about the kora. It just blew me away. At first I didn’t even realise it was solo, because I couldn’t believe that one person could do that. From the beginning I tried to imitate it, but it was both inspiring and depressing.”
Gripper has spent years working out how best to play kora music on the guitar. How do you put the music of 21 strings onto six? Surely 21 into six doesn’t go? First he thought of creating a complex guitar with multiple strings and a bass but, he laughs, “these guitars would just end up being koras eventually!” So Gripper has actually worked out a way of playing the kora pieces on a regular six-string guitar, occasionally retuning the odd string.
He says it was seeing guitarist Vieux Farka Touré on YouTube that gave him the key to unlock the music. Seeing Vieux play his father’s piece ‘Karaw’ made Gripper realise that these are basically fixed compositions. “It’s not like putting down a groove and going bonkers with the melody. They don’t improvise and they don’t change in the way that Keith Jarrett will try and play a version that he’s never played before – there’s not that desire.”
This coincided with a classical guitar tour, which reinforced Gripper’s determination to do something different. “I went to Germany to play Bach to them and I thought ‘what am I doing?’ It seemed irrelevant doing this in Europe because they were already doing that. Why go and sell their shit back to them? And it seemed irrelevant in South Africa, because it was just irrelevant.”
Lucy Durán is well known as a kora expert and the producer of all of Toumani’s kora albums, but it’s less known that she started out playing classical guitar. “The reason I lost interest in the guitar is because the repertoire is so limited,” she says. “So I have total admiration for what Derek is doing, it’s wonderful. OK he’s a white guy, but he is African and he’s opening up new ways, new tunings and new styles on the guitar.”
Durán played Gripper’s debut album One Night on Earth (a Top of the World review in #91) to Toumani at her home in London in 2014. “I’d been telling Toumani about Derek and he’d just say ‘yes, yes, whatever.’ So I sat him down and put on the CD. The expression on his face was of absolute puzzlement. I don’t think he expected for a moment that it would approximate to his own music to that extent. He said two things: ‘This is absolutely amazing’ and ‘Has he credited me?’”
Gripper certainly does credit Toumani and the other musicians he plays. On One Night on Earth and his upcoming Libraries on Fire, Gripper also plays Ali Farka Touré, Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal, as well as the late Sekou Batourou Kouyaté and Amadou Bansang Jobarteh (Toumani’s great-uncle in the Gambia). He has even arranged duets by Toumani and his son from their album Toumani & Sidiki – that’s 42 strings superbly re-versioned for six-string guitar.
The way the kora and guitar work are very different, of course. The kora’s strings are like a harp’s – so one string for each note ranging over three-and-a-half octaves. The strings are played with just four fingers, the thumb and forefinger on each hand. The guitar, in contrast, might have just six strings, played by plucking and strumming with the five fingers of the right hand. But for each of those strings there are 19 frets on the fingerboard, which means, with dextrous stopping with the left hand, each string can, in theory, play 20 notes. Just like the kora, the range is about three-and-a-half octaves. The layout of the strings and the movement of the fingers certainly means that it’s much easier to play independent bass notes beneath a florid melody on the kora than on the guitar. But Gripper shows that what might seem impossible is ultimately achievable. And because the kora can’t change the tuning of a string without stopping and re-tuning, perhaps the guitar has an advantage. On the guitar, Gripper boasts he can combine ‘Salama’ (from New Ancient Strings) and ‘Jarabi’ (from Kaira), which are in different kora tunings, and which you couldn’t do on the kora itself.
Of course the crucial question is, why listen to kora music on the classical guitar when you can listen to Toumani Diabaté? And indeed, other kora players are available too. Kora music is now readily available online and around the world in concert, but Gripper’s arrangements are something new. Bach wrote his keyboard music for harpsichord, but Glenn Gould and Andras Schiff have performed brilliant versions on piano.
Durán’s one reservation comes from the intrinsic sounds of the instruments. The kora has a skin-covered resonator whereas the guitar has a wooden sound-table. “This gives the guitar a fantastic resonance which doesn’t seem quite right for the music,” she says. One of the reasons the Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal duets work so well is because Segal largely avoids big legato melodies on his cello and prefers to dirty the sound with harmonics, the edge of the bow, and lots of pizzicato.
There’s no point in Gripper simply reproducing the sound of the kora. And many outside West Africa might actually prefer the cleaner sound of the classical guitar, just as most people now prefer Bach on the piano rather than the harpsichord.
Gripper says: “it was never a goal of mine to play with Toumani. We’re both solo performers. That is the real joy. The beauty of his music is its simplicity and complexity coming from one instrument.” Although I think it would be magnificent to hear them play some of the kora duets performed, for instance, by Toumani and Ballaké Sissoko on New Ancient Strings.
Gripper’s interest is to take the repertoire to new audiences. He’s transcribed many of Toumani’s pieces so they can be played by other classical guitarists (if they’re good enough), he’s arranged one of Toumani’s pieces for Kronos Quartet, and he’ll play new arrangements for two classical guitars at Songlines Encounters Festival in June. In the summer he’s touring the US in an Africa Unplugged double-bill with Mali’s Trio da Kali. For him, this is music, like the compositions of Bach, that should be heard in different ways worldwide.
What is special about seeing Gripper at the Festival Acoustik Bamako is seeing him play ‘international’ versions of Malian music for a local audience. As soon as he plays a few notes, the audience recognise the tune and there is a whoop of admiration. This is a remarkable moment. The new international face of kora music being recognised at home. This is the beginning of a story that still has quite a way to go.