At the STRING JAM CLUB, COUNTY HOTEL, SELKIRK 21st January 2017
Derek Gripper appeared at the String Jam Club, Selkirk, en route to appearing at Celtic Connections in Glasgow. On the primitive musical tundra that I normally roam, a guitar is something that gets strummed by a singer to help the song along a bit, and I was unprepared for what was in store for me. I had been advised not to miss seeing this man, described as ‘one of the most celebrated guitarists in the world today’. Now I know why. Fresh from an appearance at Carnegie Hall, Gripper has been touring with guitar maestro John Williams who describes his playing as doing what is ‘absolutely impossible’. It certainly looked that way to me.
After the show, my naiveté led me to ask him if his fingers were sore. He showed me his strong but elegant hand and explained that yes, his fingers were sore but that after so many years of playing they had lost most of their feeling. Somehow this seemed a strange state of affairs for a man who puts so much raw emotion into his work.
Gripper was born in South Africa 38 years ago and learnt the violin at the age of six, moving on to the piano and then the guitar. He is passionate about African Kora music from Mali, in particular the music of the great Kora player Toumani Diabaté (the kora is a 21-stringed West African lute made out of cow-hide). Gripper’s great achievement is to adapt this ancient music for the acoustic guitar and to perform it in a series of truly breathtaking and beautiful compositions.
If that were the limit of this man’s genius, it would be enough, but amazingly there is more. Gripper is also a lover of Johann Sebastian Bach and has arranged several of his violin pieces for the guitar. Hearing Bach played in such a manner is an experience that I shall not forget in a hurry. As he says, no one knows what Bach’s music sounded like when it was first played but it probably wasn’t the way that we hear it in concert halls today.
One does not come away from many concerts saying ‘I could have listened to the music all night’ but this was one such occasion.