Album Review: Derek Gripper – Libraries on Fire [New Cape Records, 27th May 2016]

With Libraries on Fire South African musician Derek Gripper brings us a new album of kora music transcribed for solo classical guitar, as he treads along the tricky line between homage and re-interpretation, showcasing a great deal of virtuosity and creative flair along the way.

Gripper manages the distinctive bass lines and cascading melodic elements of kora music in impressive style, inserting with perfectly judged balance moments of rich tonal variety that are markedly that of a guitar. The occasional distant vocalisations are a nice extra touch, blending harmonies that are at times almost on the edge of hearing.

On the production side Gripper’s decision to lay all the tracks down in one afternoon has resulted in a beautifully consistent recording, and the album would be worth listening to for pure quality of sound alone. The performance has been perfectly captured by engineer Simon Ratcliffe, with each and every aspect of range, dynamic and tone sitting contentedly in their own space and effected with just the right amount of high quality reverb.

From the sleeve notes to the performance and choice of repertoire, Gripper’s deep love for the music of the prominent Kora exponents is plainly evident, and Libraries On Fire inevitably recalls Toumani Diabate’s 2008 album Mande Variations (a firm favourite of mine). Diabate’s composition ‘Si Naani’ features on both albums, and though Gripper’s version differs in pitch and length, when I first heard it I was still struck with the familiar spine tingling feeling which I associate with Toumani’s rendition.

Libraries on Fire is a masterclass in the sonic possibilities of the guitar; it is an engagingly honest and fresh interpretation of traditional music that perfectly balances a deference to the tradition with real innovation. It is simply a beautifully judged and highly listenable piece of work, that is extremely well recorded and has the comfortable feeling of a continuing performance as it flows naturally from one piece to the next. 10 out of 10.