For South African guitarist Derek Gripper, blending European classical structures with high-flying, folkloric handmade music is more personal and practical than academic. Gripper plays Friday in Africa Unplugged (a Music Haven presentation) at Proctors with Trio Da Kali from Mali.
“I was really drawn to individual musicians rather than styles,” Gripper recalled last week while being driven from Boston’s Logan Airport to a show.
Long before transcribing Toumani Diabate’s kora compositions for acoustic guitar, first came the violin.
After his parents split, “My dad sent me a violin, so I had to learn how it worked — and it came with no instruction manual,” Gripper said. Inspired by his mother’s orchestra-player boyfriend, Gripper studied violin, piano and guitar, composing first on six strings. In his teens he played electric bass in Cape Town rock clubs. “[Led] Zeppelin was a big thing, and I really liked Queen when I was much younger,” he said. “Also Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers] is a great bass player, and I learned a lot from playing along with early Police records.” He was surprised to hear of apartheid as a teen in the ’90s, when he saw integrated Cape Town as “a huge explosion of indie music.”
Operating out beyond “indie” himself, Gripper explored world music in the Gilgamesh Ensemble.
“We had a really wide palette,” said Gripper. “There was [Led] Zeppelin influence there, and Algerian rai music like Khaled, and Indian classical music.”
He pilgrimaged to India to study Carnatic violin; humbled by masters there, he returned home inspired to “create a guitar music that explored the resources of the guitar, almost as Keith Jarrett explored the piano, to change tunings midsong, and to create long, extended improvisations,” as his website bio says.
He detoured with trumpeter Alex van Heerden into a jazzy chamber music combo; Gripper played viola. They recorded the album Sagtevlei before van Heerden died in a car crash and Gripper returned to the guitar, and to Bach and other masters.
He began to investigate music as either limited by instruments or unshackled from players’ traditional approaches, specifically choosing the latter path. “Every instrument has its own language,” he explained. “With the guitar, there are those who seek to exploit it and others who use it to create pure music.”
He contrasted Fernando Sor, hailed as the Beethoven of the guitar, with Mauro Giuliani, who transcended Sor’s guitar conventions to “make the guitar sing,” as a contemporary critic said.
Gripper was always guided by singular virtuoso examples rather than categories. “It wasn’t like exploring the baroque because I liked Bach,” he said. “It was more like finding individuals; like with Egberto Gismonti rather than exploring Brazilian music.” He said, “Instruments evolve in an interesting ways, and slowly from the hands of one person to another.”
Gripper found his more recent inspiration close to home, in the hands and mind of kora master Toumani Diabate. Gripper sees Diamate within a “wonderful development in kora playing in the past 50 years, like a sped-up musical history.”
Gripper had listened to Toumani Diabate for years but discovered, “It was interesting to find Toumani Diabate as a composer and instrumentalist with a whole musical style that was missing, that hadn’t happened on guitar.” So Gripper found, or built it, there.
In an essay, Gripper proclaimed Diabate, now 53, “is unequaled in the repertoire of the kora.” Noting how Diabate explodes the “constraints of fixed bass and harmonic movement over works that spanned the length of six to nine minutes,” Gripper saw a close precedent in the “Chaconne for Solo Violin” by Bach: “Fifteen minutes of continuous melodic imagination over a fixed harmonic scale.”
Gripper humbly said he’s “still a classical musician studying the wider range of what a score is.” But he has clearly engineered a passionate, progressive vision for the guitar, one that fits very compatibly with Trio Da Kali from Mali, which comprises three masters of the West African griot tradition of storytelling, with instruments.
Fode Lassana Diabate plays two balafons (wooden marimbas) at once. Bass ngoni player Mamadou Kouyate co-starred with his father Bassekou Kouyabate’s combo Ngoni Ba in a previous Music Haven concert, rain-moved indoors to Proctors from Central Park. First described by a Moroccan traveler in 1352, ngoni is a wood-and-gourd-framed, animal skin-covered, multi-stringed instrument, Mali’s precursor to the banjo. Crafted in varying sizes and with different tonal ranges, they’re usually tuned to pentatonic scales and now are often amplified. Singer Hawa Diabate is the daughter of Mali’s great singer Kasse Mady Diabate. Trio Da Kali recently recorded “Ladilikan” with the ever-adventurous Kronos Quartet and opened ears everywhere on tour.
When he played with Trio Da Kali in Burlington last week, Gripper said, “I started with a Bach piece to get people in the mood and it actually worked,” delighted to have reached past the show’s billing to “break up the distinctions,” as he put it. “Trio Da Kali is great, and I’ll try not to suck as well.”
Not to worry.
Africa Unplugged featuring Trio Da Kali and Derek Gripper
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $25
More info: 518-346-6204, www.proctors.org