Review: Derek Gripper – 21-String Guitar

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Derek Gripper, a classically trained guitarist from Cape Town, South Africa, played Kahilu Theater on Friday, February 1, 2019. At least two of his albums were recorded in churches and, appropriately, Kahilu Theater felt a bit like a church on Friday night. With the blessing of Kahilu’s Artistic Director, Chuck Gessert, the hundred or so congregants left their ticketed seats and filled up the front and center rows of the venue before Derek took the stage and launched into a stunning two hours of virtuoso music making.

Derek opened the show with an extended piece that seemed to be a medley of 2 or 3 tunes along with a fair amount of improvisation. Then, saying that he “doesn’t usually do touristy things, but”….he walked off stage and quickly returned with a Kanile’a ukulele that he purchased here on Hawaii Island (“at a shop that also sold fantastic chocolate”) and had been playing it for all of three days.* He apologized for altering the tuning, then played a piece based on an African tune that “might possibly be the first blues,” but definitely did not sound like the work of a novice uke player.

The remainder of the first set included a performance of Ali Farka Toure’s “ ’56”; a Johann Sebastian Bach arrangement; the tune “Tita”, by Malian singer Fanta Sacko; a composition by Salif Keita, another Malian singer/songwriter; and finally, Toumani Diabaté’s “Tubaka.” Derek introduced “Tubaka” with a discussion of his work interpreting the kora music of Toumani Diabaté for the guitar. The project is an amazing accomplishment given that the kora is a 21-string harp played by griots, who by definition do not write down their music in any fashion. Derek listened to recordings and painstakingly transcribed each note and developed nonstandard tunings that make his renditions possible. His admiration for Toumani was evident as he described how the kora player revolutionized the repertoire with his first album Kaira and transformed the kora from an accompanying instrument to a solo one. I loved Derek’s comparison of Toumani to Bach, saying his music “has the complexity of Bach along with the groove of someone who lives where there is more sunshine.”

Following a brief intermission, Derek returned to do an original composition titled “Joni,” which he said was “actually a very sad song about being too young to have had a relationship with Joni Mitchell.” On this and other songs, he accompanied himself with ethereal wordless vocals. Toumani Diabaté’s “Jarabi” followed, then a quite rocking number whose title I did not catch, then another original, and more Toumani to close the show.

Throughout, Derek played a beautiful Hermann Hauser III classical guitar (the Hermann Hauser guitar building dynasty dates back to 1854 and produced instruments played by Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream among other classical guitar notables), played through two stage mics. He frequently used a capo. The tuning for “Jarabi” requires simply dropping the G a semitone to F#. Other times the tuning changes were more involved, including some drastic detuning of the bass string, which, combined with artificial harmonics, produced some otherworldly tones. And tuning changes frequently occurred during songs!

It was clear from audience reactions during the show that one didn’t have to be a guitarist to be amazed and appreciative, but it certainly deepens for those who play. He is one of those players that may cause one to leave the show feeling a mixture of “I am totally inspired to play guitar…..or maybe I should just quit trying now.”


For music and tour info, please visit Derek Gripper’s official website: https://www.derekgripper.com.

Eric Burkhardt formerly managed restaurants and a technical bookstore in Austin, Texas and Denver, Colorado. He currently enjoys gardening and playing stringed instruments on Hawaii Island.

Photos: Steve Roby

  • Update. On Derek Gripper’s Facebook page (2/4/19) he wrote about the fate of his short-lived ukulele: “After three concerts on this great little instrument my actual guitar took revenge and “fell” off the back seat of the car straight onto the Ukulele leaving a hole in the soundboard. I am appalled at the pettiness of this heartless act of revenge and small-minded jealousy. But at least now I know that this guitar relationship is not an open relationship.”
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