Smile Politely

Derek Gripper and Ballaké Sissoko craft musical bridges at the Ellnora Reverb Series

The scene captures two individuals seated, each engrossed in playing a musical instrument against a dark backdrop. The individual on the left is attired in a light-colored long-sleeved shirt tucked into dark pants, and is engaged with a large stringed instrument with an ornate, rounded body and a long neck. The person on the right is dressed in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and dark pants, strumming a classic guitar. The image, in black and white, accentuates their figures and the instruments, creating a serene musical ambiance.
Ballaké Sissoko and Derek Gripper

South African classical guitarist Derek Gripper stands out as an innovative artist. Gripper has uniquely brought together the complex melodies of the West African kora and the classical guitar, a process showcasing not only his exceptional skill, but also his respect for different cultural traditions. He is set to perform at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts with Kora master Ballaké Sissoko on Thursday, March 21st. This performance promises to give audiences a special look at their collaborative talents. They will also hold a lunch Q & A and an improvisational workshop at the University of Illinois the next day, aiming to connect various musical heritages. These events are all free and open to the public as a part of KCPA’s Ellnora Reverb series. 

The kora, a 21-stringed harp-like instrument from Mali, possesses a sonic complexity that intrigues and challenges. Its sound, a blend of lute and harp, has traditionally accompanied the rich oral histories and songs of the Mandinka people. The task of translating such a multifaceted instrument onto the six strings of a classical guitar might seem daunting to many, but for Gripper, it was a calling he couldn’t ignore.

Two traditional African stringed instruments, known as koras, hang against a dark background. Their large, rounded bodies are similar to that of a lute, embellished with what appears to be tacks or studs. The necks of the instruments are long and feature numerous vertical strings, which suggests a complex sound and playing technique. The craftsmanship highlights the cultural heritage and musical traditions these instruments represent.
A kora from Enkore Amp El’Fire on Facebook

Regarding his method for adapting kora compositions for the classical guitar, Gripper delves into the technical and emotional nuances of the process. Slowing down recordings to decipher each note and meticulously retuning his guitar, he sought to capture the essence of the kora’s resonance, treating his guitar as a “six-string harp.” This methodical approach was about more than just transcription; it was a means of “rehabilitating” his classical training and rediscovering the instrument’s potential.

Gripper’s collaboration with Ballaké Sissoko, a figure he regards as one of the greatest living composers and instrumentalists, is a testament to the profound respect and admiration between the two artists. Their joint performances and recordings are a dialogue beyond words, a seamless intertwining of melodies that transcend linguistic barriers. Gripper’s reflections on their partnership reveal a blend of awe and introspection, highlighting the transformative power of such musical encounters.

Derek Gripper and Ballaké Sissoko, though united by their profound musical synergy, navigate a unique challenge in their collaboration: the absence of a shared spoken language. Gripper explains, “He speaks Bambara and French, and I don’t speak any French; he doesn’t speak any English.” This linguistic gap necessitates the use of Google Translate for practical matters like arranging pick-ups from the hotel. However, when it comes to their music and performances, words are conspicuously absent. “We don’t really discuss anything… It’s 100% about the feedback that happens in the music,” Gripper shares, highlighting a partnership deeply rooted in non-verbal communication and mutual musical intuition. This dynamic fosters an environment where their music flourishes without the need for verbal articulation, illustrating the universal language of music in its purest form. This approach, grounded in mutual respect and attentive listening, allows for a creative exchange that is both authentic and deeply personal.

Seated cross-legged on a textured rug, a musician holds a classical guitar in a dimly lit, intimate space. His casual, yet thoughtful attire contrasts with the solemnity of his pose and expression, which reflects a deep concentration on the music. The natural light from above casts soft shadows, enhancing the contemplative mood of the setting.
Derek Gripper on Facebook

Gripper’s own musical journey is a testament to his belief in the power of music to connect, educate, and inspire across boundaries. His venture into the digital realm with his online “guitar ashram” is a vibrant extension of his commitment to not only perform but also impart his deep understanding of the blend between classical guitar and kora music. “I run group classes online a number of times a week when I’m at home, usually about six classes a week,” Gripper explains, highlighting the consistent and accessible nature of this educational endeavor. The online platform, with “about 100 or 200 people” participating, transcends geographical limitations, fostering a global community united by a love for music. Gripper’s been prolific as a teacher “with about 1000 classes… over the last few years,” according to Gripper. 

Beyond the classical guitar, Derek Gripper delves into the tangible textures of analog creativity, exploring the realms of black-and-white film photography and reel-to-reel recording. This journey into the analog realm mirrors his musical exploration, seeking the authentic and the unadulterated. Gripper shares, “I’ve been doing a lot of reading a lot of black and white film photography…and I built a darkroom.” His exploration of these relatively ancient tools exemplifies his pursuit of a more direct and unfiltered mode of artistic expression. Gripper’s fascination with analog technology extends into his music, notably in the intimate and reflective album “Sleep Songs for My Daughter.” Here, simplicity reigns, as he endeavors to “do everything that comes naturally to me without trying,” echoing his approach to both music and his analog hobbies. These endeavors underscore a broader artistic philosophy: a quest for purity, whether through the lens of a camera or the strings of a guitar, offering a profound insight into the essence of his creative spirit.

Looking ahead, Gripper’s aspirations lie in the realm of listening and minimalism, seeking to “do as little as possible” while allowing the music to breathe and resonate; to live in the spaces in between the notes. His evolution as an artist is marked by a continuous stripping back of layers, a search for the essence of musical expression that lies beneath. Gripper’s journey is a reminder of music’s boundless potential to connect, transform, and inspire across cultures and generations.

In a dimly lit historic church, a musician sits center stage bathed in a purple glow, playing an acoustic guitar. The vaulted ceilings and stone archways tower above, lit softly by ambient lights that cast warm hues on the ancient murals and carvings. To the right, musical equipment stands ready, and the crucifix sculpture above dominates the space, creating a serene yet awe-inspiring atmosphere for the performance.
Derek Gripper on Facebook

As Gripper prepares to grace the stage in Urbana alongside Ballaké Sissoko, audiences are invited to experience the magic of this cultural and musical synthesis. Through his dedication to bridging worlds with six strings, Gripper not only pays homage to the rich traditions of the kora but also opens new pathways for understanding and appreciation across the globe.

Gripper’s journey, a South African musician delving into the traditional West African music of the kora, presents a fascinating study in contrasts and convergences. His work not only bridges geographical divides but also cultural and racial ones, as it sees a white man engaging deeply with the music of Black West African traditions. This intersection is further complicated and enriched by the technical feat of translating music from the 21-string kora, a harp-like instrument with a distinct and complex sound, to the six-string classical guitar. Gripper’s endeavor is more than just simple musical adaptation; it ventures into a realm where respect for tradition meets innovative reinterpretation. Through this, he not only pays homage to the rich musical heritage of the kora but also challenges and expands the capabilities of the classical guitar, highlighting the potential for cultural exchange and emphasizing music’s role as a universal form of communication.

Derek Gripper and Ballaké Sissoko
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave
Th Mar 21st, 7:30 p.m.

Lunchtime with a Jheli: Introducing Epic Stories of the Griot Tradition
International and Area Studies Library
1408 W Gregory Dr (321 Main Library)
F Mar 22nd, 11 a.m.

Improvisor’s Exchange Workshop with Derek Gripper
Music Building – Orchestra Rehearsal Room (2nd level)
1114 W Nevada St
F Mar 22nd, 3 p.m.

Music Editor

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