Derek Gripper: Griot tradition will do Malians proud

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.

Download a free copy of the album here.

Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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