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.