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Derek Gripper and Trio Da Kali

This Saturday, November 12, South African guitarist Derek Gripper will be joined on stage in Zankel Hall by Trio Da Kali, musicians from the Mandé culture of southern Mali. Read more about the African guitar and music of the griots of West Africa and join us for an unforgettable evening of traditional Malian music on November 12.

African Guitar

Derek Gripper
Derek Gripper photo by Christoph Lenz

Derek Gripper began studying the playing techniques of the kora in 2009 by learning traditional Malian compositions. Two years later, he had a breakthrough: By using the simple textural language of the vihuela Spanish renaissance lute, it was possible to play the highly complex kora compositions of Malian virtuoso Toumani Diabaté on the six-string guitar without omitting a note of the original performances. Gripper’s project to create an African repertoire for the classical guitar, based on transcriptions of works by some of Africa’s greatest musicians, resulted in a growing collection of outstanding African guitar arrangements, with works by Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Ali Farka Touré, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, Madosini, and others, bringing the guitar and the music of Africa to life in new and exciting ways.

Music of the Griots of West Africa

Of all the music of Africa that has come to the attention of Americans and Europeans in the past 50 years, none has drawn more attention than that of the Mandinka and Bambara peoples of West Africa. Often credited by ethnomusicologists and folklorists as the incubator of the blues, the music of the Mandinka jajalu and Bambara jeliw (griots) has long given inspiration to American musicians; artists such as Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Béla Fleck, and others have performed with griots from the Gambia, Senegal, and Mali, and have been influenced by their instrumental styles.

Griots are essentially oral historians. They are members of a hereditary caste known by various names, depending on tribal and linguistic heritage: jalalu (sing. jali) to the Mandinka, jeliw to the Bambara of Mali, guewel to the Wolof, iggawin to the Moors of Mauritania. Traditionally, they perform various functions: as praise singers and musicians to kings, princes, and important personages; as entertainers and storytellers; and as keepers of the history and genealogy of the people. Griots were traditionally attached to the Mandinka and Bambara princes and chiefs. Their duties were to recount tribal history and genealogy, to compose commemorative songs, and to perform at important community events. Some of the traditional story-songs are epic poems that recount the deeds of great warriors like Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Sundiata’s conquests have been eulogized and mythologized for centuries by Mandinka griots and are still a part of most griots’ repertoire.

Trio da Kali
Trio Da Kali photo by Youri Lenquette

While griots are no longer attached to princely courts (though the president of the Gambia still retains an official griot), they are still highly valued by local Mandinka communities throughout the world. They continue to perform at weddings and naming ceremonies, recounting the genealogies of the families that have hired them, and sing praises of important leaders and businessmen.

Like the troubadours of medieval Europe, griots accompany themselves on musical instruments, the most popular of which are the balafon, a wooden xylophone; the ngoni (also known as halam), a skin-faced lute that is the ancestor of the banjo; and kora, a 21-string harp-lute with a large gourd resonator. The kora is the most recent of these instruments, probably originating during the time of Jali Mady Fouling Cissoko in the 16th century.

The balafon is one of many wooden xylophones found throughout Africa. Originating in the 12th century in Guinea, it has 16 to 27 keys with gourds suspended below the keys to amplify the sound. In Guinea, the Mandé balafon is considered to be a sacred instrument. The original instrument, known as the soso-bala, was thought to have supernatural powers and was taken as a war trophy by Sunjata when he defeated Soumaoro, the Susu king, in 1236. In the hands of Sujata’s griot, Balafaseke Kouyate, it became an instrument of healing, bringing together the many warring tribes of the Mandé people.

Derek Gripper and Trio Da Kali
Derek Gripper | Trio Da Kali
Saturday, November 12 at 8:45 PM
Derek Gripper
Trio Da Kali

In his search for new directions in African music, South African guitarist Derek Gripper began transcribing the kora (harp-lute) music of Malian masters Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, and others for classical guitar. The Malian tradition is also represented by Trio Da Kali, a group of musicians from the Mandé culture of southern Mali who come from a long line of distinguished griots (oral historians / praise singers).

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