RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Derek Gripper was a musician with a problem. He'd been playing classical music since he was 6 years old - violin, piano and guitar. But by the time he got his degree, he just wasn't feeling it. Then the South African heard a sound from 5,000 miles away, the 21-string kora from West Africa. Derek Gripper decided to try to adapt the music to his six-string classical guitar. As NPR's Tom Cole reports, Gripper's efforts have led to two acclaimed music albums and a better understanding of classical music.
TOM COLE, BYLINE: Derek Gripper can play the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COLE: He was poised for an international career as a classical guitarist, but he remembers going to the land of Bach's birth for a recital.
DEREK GRIPPER: And it felt kind of strange, and it felt strange to be in Germany playing Bach then.
COLE: So he started to write his own music and adapt the music of his birthplace, Cape Town.
(SOUNDBITE OF RITINHA LOBO SONG, "JOIA")
COLE: At some point during his search for a musical identity, a friend gave him a CD by the kora master Toumani Diabate from Mali in West Africa.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOUMANI DIABTE SONG, "KAIRA")
GRIPPER: I was just blown away, you know. 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOUMANI DIABTE SONG, "KAIRA")
COLE: 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. It's a tradition that dates back some 800 years. And Gripper tried to learn it on his guitar, listening to records scribbling the notes he could discern down on paper.
GRIPPER: You become an archaeologist, 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, you know.
COLE: Gripper recorded two albums of this music without ever visiting Mali.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEREK GRIPPER SONG, "KONKOBA")
LUCY DURAN: He'd done the whole thing entirely from listening with no one to guide him.
COLE: Gripper had emailed Lucy Duran for advice. She knows a few things about West African music. She's produced six albums by Toumani Diabate and a bunch of others, and she teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She'd heard about Gripper before he reached out to her and didn't know quite what to think about the white South African who was transcribing kora music onto the guitar.
DURAN: I think I probably groaned 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.
COLE: Here's how Gripper put it together.
GRIPPER: The way that I do it on guitar is obviously very different, but on the kora the left-hand thumb for a piece like "Jarabi" would keep (playing guitar) - would keep this bass line which is going to now go all the way through the piece. And the right-hand would have a little accompaniment (playing guitar). And that leaves the fingers - the index fingers which can take the melody. (Playing guitar).
DURAN: With some careful transcribing and with some retuning, it was possible to play kora music pretty much as it sounds on the guitar.
COLE: But Lucy Duran still had one nagging question for Gripper.
DURAN: Why should I bother listening to you? Why don't I just listen to the kora? And Derek, of course, who's got a wonderful sense of humor said, well, that's a very good question. You know, I don't know that you would necessarily listen to me. But what I've gradually understood through our conversations is that what he's doing is expanding the universe of classical guitar by bringing a whole new repertoire into it.
COLE: And that excites classical guitarist John Williams.
JOHN WILLIAMS: Because I think getting the feel and the understanding and the cultural understanding of different music is very important for us as classical players.
COLE: That's something that Williams has done himself, performing with musicians from around the world and recording his own album of arrangements of African music. Williams is often praised by critics for his astounding technique. So when he praises Derek Gripper, it carries some weight.
WILLIAMS: He is absolutely amazing. I mean, it sounds a bit superficial to say that it sounds often like two guitars - it's so many notes that it sounds like two guitars, and that in itself doesn't mean much. It's really what the music is like, and he's got that feel which is just fantastic, you know, I mean, unbelievable.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEREK GRIPPER SONG, "KOROBALI")
COLE: Derek Gripper's exploration of West African kora music led him to ask a question.
GRIPPER: What can a griot teach us about how we play Bach?
COLE: Griots are the bearers of tradition in West Africa. They pass on the stories, music and culture they learned from their predecessors to the next generation. And Derek Gripper finally got to learn from one of them earlier this year when Toumani Diabate himself invited Gripper to Mali after hearing the guitarist's records.
GRIPPER: I have this idea that someone like Toumani, you know, the griots who live in an oral tradition are quite a bit closer to that kind of understanding on a general level of their relationship to music and how they play than classical musicians who've come through a written tradition. So I've been using that as my in to understand, OK, how would I play this music of Bach?
COLE: Now the 38-year-old guitarist is using what he's learned to play Bach, the music of West Africa and his own compositions. He's sharing his knowledge, too, on his website and through the transcriptions he's made available to other guitarists. And he's played his arrangements of kora music for young black audiences in South Africa.
GRIPPER: I mean, they were up on their feet going completely mad for this music that they'd never heard, and - but having such an affinity and understanding for it which exactly solved this problem of, you know, why am I playing Bach to Germans?
COLE: Because maybe you don't have to be from a particular place to enjoy and share its music. Tom Cole, NPR News.
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