Guitarist Derek Gripper Conjures The Sound Of The Kora From Thousands Of Miles Away Derek Gripper's exploration of West African kora music has produced two acclaimed albums — and, he says, a better understanding of the classical music he played as a kid.

Guitarist Conjures The Sound Of The Kora From Thousands Of Miles Away

Guitarist Conjures The Sound Of The Kora From Thousands Of Miles Away

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Derek Gripper's exploration of West African kora music has produced two acclaimed albums — and, he says, a better understanding of the classical music he was playing as a kid. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

Derek Gripper's exploration of West African kora music has produced two acclaimed albums — and, he says, a better understanding of the classical music he was playing as a kid.

Courtesy of the artist

Derek Gripper was a musician with a problem. He'd been playing classical music since he was 6 years old — violin, then piano and finally guitar. He was poised for an international career as a classical guitarist. But he remembers going to the homeland of one of his favorite composers, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Derek Gripper was a musician with a problem. He'd been playing classical music since he was 6 years old — violin, then piano and finally guitar. He was poised for an international career as a classical guitarist. But he remembers going to the homeland of one of his favorite composers, Johann Sebastian Bach.

"It felt kind of strange," he says. "It felt strange to be in Germany playing Bach to them."

"It felt kinda strange," he says. "It felt strange to be in Germany playing Bach to them."

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What could a South African tell Germans about German music? So Gripper decided to write his own music and adapt the music of his birthplace, Capetown.

What could a South African tell Germans about German music?

At some point during his search for a musical identity, a friend gave him a CD by the kora master Toumani Diabaté, from Mali in West Africa.

Instead, Gripper decided to start writing his own music and adapt the music of his birthplace, Capetown.

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"I was just blown away," Gripper says. "I didn't know what it was at all. I didn't know what a kora was; I didn't know who he was. I didn't know anything about the music at all. ... It was one of those things that just hit me, you know? That's what I wanted to do — I wanted to play music like that."

At some point during his search for a musical identity, a friend gave him a CD by the kora master Toumani Diabaté, from Mali in West Africa.

The kora looks like a giant, upside-down Tootsie Pop. A large gourd sits at the bottom of a long neck traversed by the 21 strings. The player sits, resting the gourd in his lap with the neck vertical, and plucks the strings with the thumb and one finger of each hand.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cLAwAOi-hA

It's a tradition that dates back some 800 years. Gripper tried to learn it on his guitar, listening to records and scribbling the notes he could discern down on paper.

"I was just blown away," Gripper says. "And I didn't know what it was at all. I didn't know what a kora was; I didn't know who he was. I didn't know anything about the music at all. ... It was one of those things that just hit me, you know. That's what I wanted to do — I wanted to play music like that."

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"You become an archaeologist," he says. "You work it out and you read the CD liner notes and you slow the music down. And you just try and work it out."

The kora looks like a giant upside-down Tootsie Pop — a large gourd sits at the bottom of a long neck traversed by the 21 strings. The player sits, resting the gourd in his lap with the neck vertical, and plucks the strings with the thumb and one finger of each hand.

Gripper recorded two albums of this music without ever visiting Mali.

It's a tradition that dates back some 800 years. Gripper tried to learn the technique on his guitar by listening to records and scribbling the notes he could discern down on paper.

"You become an archaeologist," he says, "and you work it out, and you read the CD liner notes, and you slow the music down. And you just try and work it out."

"He'd done the whole thing entirely from listening with no one to guide him," says Lucy Duran.

Gripper had emailed Duran for advice because she knows a few things about West African music: She has produced six albums by Toumani Diabaté and a bunch of others. She hosted a popular BBC world music program. And she teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIMrWc9Ic9s

Gripper recorded two albums of this music — without ever visiting Mali.

She had heard about Gripper before he reached out to her. But she didn't know quite what to think about the white South African who was transcribing kora music onto the guitar.

"I think I probably groaned," she recalls, "and rolled my eyes and thought: Oh God. Oh, all right. But as soon as I listened, then I realized that he was approaching this from a very different spirit of just imitation."

"He'd done the whole thing entirely from listening with no one to guide him," says Lucy Duran. Gripper had emailed her for advice because she knows a few things about West African music: she's produced six albums by Toumani Diabaté and a bunch of others. She hosted a popular BBC world music program. And she teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Duran and Gripper began a lengthy email correspondence, and the guitarist dove into the music, absorbing everything he could.

She'd heard about Gripper before he reached out to her, but didn't know quite what to think about the white South African who was transcribing kora music onto the guitar.

"I think I probably groaned," she recalls, "and rolled my eyes and thought: Oh God. Oh all right. But as soon as I listened, then I realized that he was approaching this from a very different spirit of just imitation."

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Lucy Duran thinks he's pulled it off. "With some careful transcribing and with some re-tuning, it was possible to play kora music pretty much as it sounds on the guitar," she says.

But she still had one nagging question for Gripper.