You might think a solo guitarist would feel swamped on the large stage of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, but Derek Gripper is used to playing on some of the world’s largest and most famous stages. On Monday 23rd January, opening for Australian guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel, Gripper walked onto the Celtic Connections stage with a cheery nod, acknowledging the welcome from the audience, took a seat, relaxed with one ankle resting on the other knee, and proceeded to play the most beautiful, enchanting guitar music you will ever hear. There are a large number of gifted guitarists who can play mesmerising music, but what makes Derek Gripper’s music so special owes as much to his repertoire as it does to his substantial technical ability. Gripper plays the music of the West African Griot tradition, mostly that created for the kora, the 21 string bridged harp. All on his guitar. And it sounds amazing.
Opening with the relaxed cascade of Tuth Jara, the sound soon intensifies as the more rhythmic bass tones, transcribed from the n’goni (a smaller, lute-like instrument) begin to dominate. Kora music is where classically trained Gripper has found his most fruitful inspiration, and he’s devoted years to adapting the music for classical guitar since hearing Toumani Diabaté play in 1987.
As Gripper explained, it was Diabaté’s innovative approach to kora that first inspired him to take his music in this direction, playing melody, harmonies, bass and rhythm all together on one instrument. He then went on to provide a dazzling demonstration with two of Toumani’s traditional pieces – Jarabi, and Tubaka. Gripper also indulges in a certain amount of vocalising while he plays, which adds a soft human element to the music and seems to invoke the spirit of the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, especially in Toure’s own 56. When adapting Salif Keita‘s Folon, though, he takes his raw material to the strings again by including the vocal melody on the guitar, giving the song a whole new dimension.
One final traditional African inspiration, and collaborator, Gripper paid tribute to in this enthralling set, was the Eastern Cape musician, composer, poet, singer, story-teller Madosini. An exponent of mouth-bow instruments such as the uhadi and mhrubhe, Madosini has performed along with Gripper at many South African music festivals. Translating her music into an arrangement where five of the guitar’s strings are devoted to the vocal melodies brings yet another dimension to the performance.
The enthusiastic response to Derek Gripper‘s set proves the value of his work transcribing this haunting music for guitar. At the start of the evening he joked that, after learning classical violin from an early age, he decided touring the world playing the music of dead white men was not enough (though he still loves to play Bach). His 2012 album One Night On Earth, and 2016’s Libraries On Fire hint, magnificently, at a substantial alternative repertoire. And it’s one well worth exploring.
Derek Gripper’s latest album, Libraries on Fire is out now