Violins, kora, guitars and Derek Gripper

Violins, kora, guitars and Derek Gripper

South African guitarist Derek Gripper is the kind of musician who makes painstakingly difficult technique sound like the product of effortless musicianship and adventurous curiosity. Though he trained a classical violinist, he is perhaps best known for transcribing music played on the 21-string kora instrument from West Africa and arranging it for guitar. Last year, he presented a TEDx talk about his work and we strongly encourage you to check it out. This week, we chatted with Derek about his journey from violins to guitar, sojourn full of detours to places like India and Mali and composers like Bach and Toumani Diabaté.


You studied the violin and Western classical music at school. What inspired you to then go in a comparatively different direction as a professional recording artist – i.e. studying Carnatic music in India, mastering the guitar and interpreting kora music from western Africa?

It is hard to say why a certain type of music grabs you, shakes you and has you playing it. In my case, it is largely due to chance meetings and chance hearings. My passion went from classical violin when my dad bought me a violin at age seven; to being given an old bass guitar at age 14 and making friends with a guy [Jonathan Savage] who is now one of South Africa’s leading rock musician and producer; to discovering Led Zeppelin and their No Quarter collaboration with an Egyptian string ensemble. As the pieces began to fit together I discovered Raï music, especially Cheb Khaled; then I discovered an obscure South Indian record of Carnatic violin and guitar music; and then I found myself sitting on the floor in a garage on Robben Island improvising with one of India’s top movie percussionists, a crazy guy called Sivamani who said I had to go to India no matter what... A few months later, I ended up in India with at a violin lesson with the very same violinist from the [Carnatic violin and guitar music] record – totally by chance – and attending the Chennai Music Festival. And once you’ve been to India you're never the same again, you keep going back...

You’re probably best known for your impressive transcriptions of Toumani Diabaté, a Malian musician who plays the 21-string kora instrument. So how did a South African-born white man like yourself, from Cape Town, the southern-most tip of the African continent, find and develop a fascination with the kora instrument and music from Mali?

Again, it’s a simple chance encounter. A friend studying ethnomusicology gave me a Toumani CD called Kaira. It blew me away. His musicianship was off the charts, I thought; music from another planet, a performance like no other.

Has your training in classical music influenced the way you explore and interpret music from African and other non-western roots? If so, how?

Yes! Rather than thinking of Toumani as merely a traditional musician improvising, I started to see him as a composer just like Bach. Suddenly I had a way in! Had I not done that, I would have been a complete outsider with no way into his music and his artistry. I just needed to translate his music, interpret it, just as I would a Bach sonata. No problem! There were a few difficulties along the way, like the fact that there are no scores of course! But that was the general idea.

But would you say it was challenging to transcribe and arrange the often-complex kora music of artists like Toumani Diabaté, especially given there are no scores, as you say?

Well for ten years I thought this music would be impossible to play on a normal guitar. Firstly, a bass line needs to be played throughout the song while, at the same time, the melody is played in completely different timing, without ever dropping the bass line. So maybe a multi-stringed guitar would work, I thought? But luckily for me, I had spent a year exploring Vihuela music of the Renaissance period, and that prepared me to take on the challenge of playing kora music on a guitar. It became the most natural guitar music I had ever played. But it was painstaking work. Note by note, spending hours to transcribe just a few seconds of music. Eventually, I learned to speak the language fluently.

Does the experience of playing kora music on a guitar change the way you play the guitar itself? Do you find yourself playing the guitar differently?

Absolutely! This music is a game changer! Firstly, there are many interesting inflections which make their way into your playing. Secondly, you are playing and listening to music by people who speak a finite musical language as a first language. They didn't learn this from dots on a page or choose it after listening to many styles of music. They grew up with this music in their ears from the day they were conceived. This changes the way the music is heard and played. Imagine a first language speaker of English and somebody who has learned it from a book!

On your first solo album released in 2003 – “Blomdoorns” [translates to thorns of flowers] – you played a Brahms Guitar that was made by Colin Cleveland, a Cape Town architect and luthier. Why did you need a custom-crafted guitar for an album of works that evoke the music of the Cape?

That guitar came about as a project to enlarge the scope of the guitar. It was inspired by Paul Galbraith, the Irish eight string guitarist and intended to play Bach. I guess it shows just how unhappy I was with the guitar as it was; I was looking for a new way. In the end, I ended up playing the very same make of guitar that Segovia – the ultra-traditionalist – played. But, what I did with it was different. This, in the end, is more interesting I think.

Do you have a favorite guitar(s)? If so, explain why they’re your favorites?

Hauser. They are simply magic, the product of repetition rather than innovation. They have been making the same guitar for almost 100 years and slowly perfecting it. This is art, thinking with the hands. The way the Hauser responds is very unique and very different to almost any other guitars. It is subtle but has huge implications for how you play.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the guitar, which you don’t find with many other instruments, is that it connects people from different cultures because we all know and recognize its sound. However, each culture also has a unique way of appropriating and reinventing the instrument’s sound, at times making it distinct beyond recognition.

For those in New York who will likely encounter you and your music for the first time, how would you describe your music and aesthetic in the context of contemporary South African guitar music? Are there many classically trained South African guitarists, in your view, who are experimenting with and exploring African musical idioms and traditions in a similar fashion as you are? 

The African use of guitar is unique indeed! All over the continent the guitar has been used to reimagine music, from the Ngoni styles of West Africa and all the way to mbira music from Zimbabwe and Maskanda from South Africa. It's an incredible legacy. 

We do have classical guitar in South Africa but in a very traditional sense – i.e. intellectual Spanish guitar, as in many parts of the world. We don't have much exposure to the rest of the world so that means we suffer and become consumers more than producers. 

There are some wonderful guitarists here outside of the classical world – Steve Newman of Tananas, Guy Buttery, Tony Cox and Madala Kunene spring to mind. These guys are the main instrumental guitarists. Madala does sing but I love his solo work; he played at Carnegie Hall a while back.

What can we expect to hear from you at this year’s New York Guitar Festival? What inspired your choices?

I am playing music off my new album Libraries on Fire, which features the music of three generations of kora composers. Or am also hoping to do the world premiere of my latest transcription of the Bach Chaconne, which takes its lead from what I have learned from kora performers.

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By Zingi Mkefa


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