Derek Gripper is one of South Africa’s leading guitarists whose love of the kora set him transcribing and recording some of its greatest works, changing the face of classical guitar and giving the instrument its very first African repertoire.
When Gripper released “One Night on Earth,” his first album of kora translations, classical guitar legend John Williams said he thought it was “absolutely impossible until I heard Derek Gripper do it,” while kora maestro Toumani Diabaté asked for confirmation that it was indeed just one person playing. Both invited Derek to collaborate with them: Derek performed with Williams in London’s Shakespeare’s Globe and King’s Place, and with Diabaté and his Symmetric Orchestra at the Acoustik Festival Bamako, Mali. His 2016 Carnegie Hall debut paired him with Mali’s Trio da Kali, and the UK’s Songlines honoured him with best album in Africa and the Middle East for his 2016 album “Libraries on Fire.”
Since these two recordings put kora/guitar translations on the map, his recent recordings “A Year of Swimming” (2020), “Billy Goes to Durban,” (2021) and “Sleep Songs for My Daughter” (2022), have incorporated elements of his kora explorations in original compositions and improvisations, captured on tape in the field and in studio, while his Bach recordings have shown that African music has a lot to teach us about recapturing the natural simplicity of early European music.
Touring globally from his home in Cape Town, Gripper is collaborating with Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko on a new duo project, and recording for the record label Platoon.
“Five stars… Gripper has brilliantly transferred [the kora] repertoire onto a regular six string guitar. He sees [Toumani] Diabaté as the Segovia, or indeed John Williams, of the kora, championing it as a solo instrument. And Gripper brilliantly takes it back to the guitar. He’s opening a whole new repertoire of classical guitar music… bringing African guitar into the classical mainstream.”
— SIMON BROUGHTON
“Gripper has cracked it… his playing has a depthless beauty, which does full justice to the complexity of Toumani’s compositions. To do so without any hint of the music being dumbed down is a staggering achievement on solo guitar.”
— NIGEL WILLIAMSON, SONGLINES MAGAZINE
“More than a labour of love, Gripper has brought a new purity to the dream-like improvisatory nature of these compositions. My recording of the year, so far!”
— TIM PANTING, CLASSICAL GUITAR MAGAZINE
“The result is astounding, not just for its technical brilliance, but its musicality. Gripper executes these pieces with the precision and attention to detail one might expect from a great classical musician… It’s hard to imagine a more impressive and passionate rendering of Malian music on classical guitar.”
— BANNING EYRE, AFROPOP WORLDWIDE
“A true synthesis and a great album.”
— IAN KEAREY, FROOTS
Shakespeare’s Globe with John Williams, King’s Place (London) with John Williams
King’s Place (London) with Debashish Battacharya (2019)
Carnegie Hall (NYC) 2016, Kennedy Centre (Washington DC)
NYC Lincoln Centre
Royal Albert Hall Elgar Room
Glasgow Celtic Connections (with Tommy Emmanuel)
La Cigale (Paris) (opening for Eric Bib and JJ Manteua)
Music Instrument Museum Phoenix (with Kaki King),
Globalquerque! ALBQ (with Debashish Bhatacharya)
Music Instrument Residency For Irish Academy at Royal Irish Opera House (with International Guitar Quartet)
Palais Montcalm, Quebec
Musique de Nuits, Montreal
Royal Conservatory, Toronto,
Portland Oregon, Arlene Schnitzer Hall
Tour of UK for “Making Tracks “ series performing with Paolo Angeli
Rochester Jazz Festival
Festival Acoustik Bamako with Toumani Diabate
Uppsala International Guitar Festival
Shakori Hills Folk Fest
Music Meeting Holland (and repeat performance)
Gumusluk Classical Music Festival in Turkey (three times)
Shambala Festival UK, Festival Sud Arles France
Letterkenny – Ireland Earegail Arts Festival
St Catherine’s Church Vilnus Lithuania
Festival of Mali Brooklyn Bowl (NYC)
Savannah Music Festival (Georgia)
Adelaide Guitar Festival
Sydney Guitar Festival
Rhode Island Guitar Festival (NY)
Lotus Festival, Bloomington Indiana
Classical Next Showcase, Rotterdam
Festival des 5 Continents, Switzerland
Oslo World Music Festival, Global Copenhagen
Harare International Festival of Arts
Bushfire Festival Swaziland (three times)
Sauti za Busara – with Tcheka (from Cape Verde)
Copenhagen Classical Guitar Festival
Arrhus Classical Guitar Festival
Dillington Classical Guitar Festival UK
Uppsalla Guitar Festival Sweden
Chicago World Music Festival
Ellnora Guitar Festival Champagne-Urbana
Cape Town World Music Festival
Karoo Klassique Classical Music Festival
Klein Karoo Kunste Fees, Cultivaria Kunste Fees
New Music Indaba, Grahamstown Festival
Robben Island Heritage Day with Nelson Mandela in attendance
Druga Godpa Festival (Ljubljana)
Musiques Metisses (Angouleme France)
‘Ten fingers for twenty-one strings, and magic takes place, surely, calmly. Ballaké Sissoko enlaces us in his suave and crystalline sonority and his kora, magnified by his talent as a melodist and an improviser’
Ballaké Sissoko (born 1968) is a Malian player of the kora. He has worked with Toumani Diabaté and Taj Mahal, and is a member of the group 3MA with Driss El Maloumi and Rajery.
Ballaké’s father, Djelimady Sissoko, was a notable musician from the Gambia in his own right who moved to Mali and was funded by the government to be part of the national orchestra. Sissoko started playing music at a young age, as most born into the jeli or griot caste do. In 1981, when he was 13, Sissoko’s father died, and he took his father’s place within the Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali He also performed with several prominent female singers before coming to fame through his duet with Toumani Diabaté in 1999. In 2000, he formed the trio Mande Tabolo with an n’goni player and a balafon player.
His 2005 album, Tomora, features Toumani Diabaté on kora, singers Alboulkadri Barry and Rokia Traoré and Fanga Diawara, violin soloist of the Mali National Instrumental Ensemble.
His record Chamber Music released in October 2009 was the result of a collaboration with Vincent Ségal, a classical cellist known for his work with Bumcello, and was released by French label No Format! and the U.S. label Six Degrees Records.
On his last album Djourou, Ballaké Sissoko explored new horizons by inviting musicians as varied as Salif Keita, Arthur Teboul (Feu! Chatterton), Camille, Oxmo Puccino, Vincent Segal and Patrick Messina, Piers Faccini to collaborate with him. The highly praised release was a demonstration of the art of musical conversation, Ballaké style, that plaited new strands into the long cord or ‘djourou’ that links him to other musicians and to the history of the kora. There’s no doubt that Ballaké owes his taste and talent for the musical encounter to his consummate listening skills. But they’re also the fruit of the long conservations he never tires of having with his own instrument.
During these strange and paradoxical ‘solitary dialogues’, he makes his kora speak and reacts to the emotions it arouses in him, letting his imagination and his fingers fly off to landscapes that are both magnificent and unknown. It’s there that his qualities as an improviser can be accurately measured, qualities that he began cultivating long ago in the shadow of the venerable elders of the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, when he was still a young boy. Taking time off from the Djourou sessions, Ballaké recorded these eight instrumental pieces in the intimate confines of the Chapelle Sainte-Apolline in Belgium. Together they proclaim, without need for further evidence, the heights of mastery and freedom that this discreet giant of global music has scaled in his forty-year-long career.
Ballaké is that country’s best ambassador. He was recently invited by the famous COLORS studio in Berlin to play ‘Nan Sira Madi’, the song that opens the new album. As for the title ‘A Touma’, take it to mean ‘this is the moment’: the moment for Ballaké to share the fruits of his maturity, and for us to discover and be blown away.