Get Gripped with Malian sounds with Guitarist Derek Gripper

He’s alone on stage, twisting his classical guitar string pegs to get the right tuning. The sound of an eager patron, sitting right in front of him in the front row, crunching on her popcorn, evokes his off-put reaction:  “Oh, the sound of popcorn!” …  pause…. “Really?”  His not-so-subtle sarcasm sets a humourous tone which threads throughout his one-man performance.

His own classically traditional instrument, a relatively inexpensive ‘hippy’ acoustic guitar, as he calls it, transcribes complicated yet melodious songs from Mali’s kora musical traditions, a feat which has continually impressed the Mali musicians themselves.

The popcorn crackling stops.

Besides an unfortunate 30 minute delay in starting the concert, a time management issue at Capetown’s main ‘independent’ Labia Theater which also runs films, Gripper acknowledged appreciation that a significant crowd ‘came out in the rain’, something Capetownians inevitably and consistently try to avoid.  The sponsor of the performance, Slow Life, which offers stellar concerts in other venues, like at Kalk Bay’s cozy Olympia Bakery in order to attract peninsular audiences, proudly introduced Gripper, a local Capetownian becoming increasingly familiar when not traveling and gigging in regular overseas areas such as Europe, United States, West Africa, and parts of Asia.

For one hour plus, we heard beautiful arrangements of Malian songs, his guitar transforming runs and lower register thematic hums with ingenuity and uniqueness. Gripper has worked hard to transcribe kora works of Mali musicians, like Toumani Diabaté and  Boubacar Traoré, magically morphing sounds onto a western-style classical guitar.

In between songs, Gripper’s quirky humourous stories break the silence (and awe) from a spellbound audience:  a monologue on honouring “this folk guy, JS Bach, from Germany” whose music he enjoys playing in a more contemporary setting; a ramble about the communality of Mali tea drinking; comments about tonality when a patron’s cell phone rings. During one song brake, Gripper sits with one leg crossed and starts filing his right hand nails, suggesting that this is perfectly ordinary amongst guitarists. “I found this fantastic thumb nail from Lithuania,” or “ This dude gave me a cool glass file which I dropped, unfortunately.”  The audience chuckles as he continues to tune his strings and tell stories about how to secure good nail files as he travels worldwide.

Songs played come from his two last albums, ‘One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali” and “Libraries on Fire” which is his latest. Listening to Gripper is like taking the base theme superimposed with repetitive plucked runs characteristic of kora playing, and moving one’s spirit to another level, meditatively and gently. His six-string guitar assumes abilities to transform the mystical, and awe-inspiring tones of the kora, thus revealing Gripper’s expert handle on these unique Malian tonalities.  His creative synthesis of the two guitars of the West African and classical western, an improviser’s dream, excites as it pushes sonic boundaries.

Stream and buy his albums on   You won’t be disappointed.

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