WNPR

Derek Gripper's Quest To Emulate the Sound of West Africa on the Classical Guitar

Nov 3, 2016

South African classical guitarist Derek Gripper is obsessed with the lilting and intricate music of the West African instrument known as the kora. Gripper, who performs this Friday night at Wesleyan University, has translated many kora compositions for guitar.

The kora is West African instrument. It is part lute and part harp: 21 strings tied to a wooden bridge connected to a resonator typically made out of a gourd.

Kora players sit facing the front of the instrument, cradle the gourd resonator in their lap, and pluck the strings with both hands.

The instrument is centuries old, and is an integral part of village life in Mali.

"In West Africa, it's used by the griots, who are traditional storytellers, counselors, historians, and virtuoso musicians, going back to the courts of a thousand years or so ago," said Banning Eyre, senior producer of the public radio show Afropop Worldwide.

Kora tunes are passed down from griot to griot, often father to son, and with each generation the songs evolve, and the playing becomes more technically innovative and virtuosic. Banning Eyre likens it to jazz.

"A song played by Louis Armstrong in 1945 sounds a lot different when played by (jazz pianist) McCoy Tyner 30 years later," he said.

Perhaps the most accomplished kora player in Mali is griot Toumani Diabaté.

South African classical guitarist Derek Gripper first heard Toumani's music while studying the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in Germany. He said he was instantly hooked, and he set out to transcribe kora music for classical guitar.

"Before I started playing this music, I had no contact with kora players, or even actually seen a kora," Gripper said. "So my approach to learning this music was to use the skills of a classical musician, and to read the music which I experienced through recordings as musical scores. So, these arrangements are exactly as the kora would be played but translated to the guitar."

Gripper said he would listen to one phrase of kora music over and over until he figured out how to play it on the guitar.

Eyre said Gripper belongs to a long line of musicians who play kora music on the guitar, but his approach is unique.

"The general characteristic of kora music is that it's very flowing," Eyre said. "It has this cascading arrangements of notes, where it will go 'diddle dee diddle dee diddle dee,' something like that -- very fast. And Derek has just been brilliant in the ways that he first studied and analyzed exactly what was going on in all that fancy stuff, and then just found this way of playing it. He's very free with it, it's remarkable."

Guitarist Derek Gripper performs this Friday evening at 8:00 pm at Wesleyan University in Middletown.