One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali
by Derek Gripper
Label: New Cape Records
This album by South African guitarist Derek Gripper includes arrangements of compositions by Malian musicians Toumani Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré, and Ballaké Sissoke, as well as French cellist Vincent Segal. Gripper is known for his other projects including everything from Brazilian music, collaborations with classical Indian tabla, innovation of South African folk sounds, and arrangements of J.S.Bach. A versatile guitarist and certainly a devoted and inspired musician. This album is no exception as it contains what must have been some painstaking transcriptions of kora music. The kora is a 21-string bridge-harp associated commonly with West Africa. There is a fine line here between transcription and arrangement but Gripper pulls it off.
The album has a simple feel to it despite the very active guitar work. Gripper is an excellent musician in the sense of convincing the listener that the music was meant to be played on guitar. Although the process of playing this music on the guitar must have been a huge undertaking, Gripper sounds at home and pulls off the virtuosity with ease. From expansive drone effects to sweet legato lines, Gripper turns the guitar into a tool for his imagination of these works.
One of my favourite tracks is “Djourou Kara Nany”. Here the rhythms, meandering lines, and textures change rapidly but the overall mood is one of joy and continuous movement forward. The rhythmic complexity on this album is handled wonderfully by Gripper. There is a moment in the song “Konkoba (Earth)” where a quick modulation to a new time signature (or rhythmic pulse) is handled with amazing ease. The polyrhythms for a moment are a joy to hear. A difficult task but executed with style.
The recording quality: Excellent guitar sound combining clarity with warmth. Because of all the drone qualities, slides, etc involved in realizing this music I would say anyone would be hard-pressed to beat the recording quality here.
Critical comments: Because I review so much classical guitar music I found it difficult to review this album in the same way I usually would. That is, not being familiar with kora music I have little to guide my opinions as to Gripper’s interpretations. However, the atmosphere and mood is so well matched to the musician on this album that I have to give it my full approval. The music does not contain the same structural elements and compositional complexity of classical works. However, it is complex music in it’s own right. The music might have lost some of the original charm that might have existed on an authentic performance on kora. Gripper generally sounds polished and pretty (legato), but I wonder if a bit of rough, less polished, playing would have added some interesting grit to the album. Regardless, I think Gripper is realistic and honest that this is an expression of his own connection and love for the music. I found myself putting this music on in the background often this past two weeks which is rare when I’m dealing with review material. It’s a good album from both a guitar and non-musician point of view…
Conclusion: Gripper has created more than just transcriptions of kora music but has given listeners a sincere and thoughtful album of music. The synthesis of transcription and personal arranging is what makes this a spectacular achievement on guitar. Gripper is so at home with this music and that makes it more special than most albums I hear on classical guitar. Never do I feel he is struggling or ‘trying’ to pull something off.
A special album of interest to guitarists and general listeners for its charm, atmosphere, and musicality.
Out of interest, Gripper also puts on a great live show. Check out this clip.