South African guitarist Derek Gripper joins the 29th Annual Savannah Music Festival

The 29th Annual Savannah Music Festival began on Thursday, March. 29 and will be holding 17 days of musicians playing in a variety of local venues.

The Charles H. Morris Center hosted world-renowned South African guitarist Derek Gripper on Friday, March 30th. He was asked to arrange music for an event held on Robben Island, South Africa, home to the prison of Nelson Mandela—an experience which would change his life forever. Gripper claims three key moments on Robben changed his musical career. First, he met musician friends Alex van Heerden (with whom he would tour in the future until Alex’s untimely death in 2009), Robbie Jansen (Cape Town jazz saxophonist), and Brydon Bolton (bassist). Second, Gripper encountered and bonded with Indian percussion performer Sivamani who later invited him to India in order to study Carnatic musical theory. Finally, he met Mandela himself while performing on the island.

After Gripper returned home from India, he focused on arranging Kora music, which is a traditional Malian instrument for guitar, all the while asking himself “is it possible to make new music using the tools of the old worlds without simply reproducing the same consciousness of this old music?”

Gripper also teaches Kora music for guitar through Skype and audio besides conducting tours throughout the world. Gripper grew up playing the violin and later guitar at a young age, starting his own band with friends entitled the Gilgamesh Ensemble in his coming-of-age years.

While performing for the Savannah audience, it is apparent how at home this stellar guitarist makes himself on the guitar. Eyes closed and singing along with the music, Gripper’s fingers fly across the strings, enchanting everyone in attendance. His playing style is heavily influenced by world-renowned kora player, Toumani Diabaté of Mali.

The kora is a kind of lute of the Mandinka people in West Africa—made of a long hardwood neck stretching strings across a gourd resonator covered with cow skin and a leather sounding board. Gripper’s dry-humored jokes had the audience chuckling in between musical sets of his own composition, those of Diabaté, other Malian artists, and Bach.

While between songs, Gripper told the story of Ali Farka Touré, world-famous Malian musician who learned to play guitar on the N’jarka, a single string violin from Africa. Touré told Gripper once that he enjoyed playing a 6 string guitar but always felt as though he were neglecting the other strings he could not play on at the same time. Gripper’s performed one of Touré and Diabeté’s songs entitled “‘56”—known to be one of Touré’s more difficult pieces to perform.

When asked for his advice to young musicians, “It’s a nonlinear career choice…the landscape of it changes, audiences change, and what you do changes and that means that you’re pretty free to do what you want to do. So, if anyone comes to you and says if you do this and this and this and it’ll work out for you, you know, it’s not really good advice because the music industry is altering. You have free reign to do what you like.”

Gripper has several albums called “One Night on Earth”, “The Library’s On Fire”, and upcoming Bach-themed album on Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes. He has also given a TedTalk which you can find on YouTube under the title, “Translating great African composers.”

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