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Derek Gripper Turns Classical Guitar into a Kora: Live Review

Derek Gripper is a classical guitarist from Cape Town, South Africa, who has developed an uncanny and unique approach to playing African music, in particular, Mande kora music from Mali and Gambia. He became entranced by this music at a time when he was already a formidable classical guitarist.  And, as he told a rapt audience at Drom, in New York’s East Village on September 10, he approached the repertoire of recorded kora performances as compositions comparable with the greatest of European art music. Indeed, Gripper quite rejects distinctions between “classical” and “folk,” “traditional,” or “improvised” music.  Indeed he noted that Bach himself was quite the improviser, and called him, “a great folk musician.”

Derek Gripper at Drom (Eyre 2013)

Derek Gripper at Drom (Eyre 2013)

Engaging patter aside, Gripper literally hypnotized the audience with his seemingly effortless adaptation of pieces performed by Toumani Diabate, Ballake Sissoko and other giants of the kora. What’s interesting from a guitarist’s point of view is that Gripper does not use any of the techniques West African guitar pickers have developed to channel the kora. He plays in keys they would not use, uses four right-hand fingers to pick–rather than two, as an African finger style player would do. He has listened deeply, and relies on a diverse bag of tricks classical guitarists have developed over the decades, adding a number of his own, including retuning his instrument for certain pieces. The result is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

While President Obama publicly mulled over matters of war, Gripper delivered a sublime rendition of the Mande classic “Kaira,” or Peace. He varied the set with a few powerful and technically dazzling pieces by maverick Brazilian guitarist/composer Egberto Gismonti. These came accompanied by musings about the movement of music and instruments from Angola to Brazil. Gripper also played Ali Farka Toure’s beloved classic “’56,” a meditation on the year 1956, when he learned to play guitar with Fodeba Keita in Guinea.

This was Gripper’s first New York concert, but it certainly won’t be his last. Click here for more on Derek Gripper, and click here for my review of his recent CD, One Night on Earth.

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