On March 30, the intimate Charles H. Morris Center was close to capacity for the first of two Savannah Music Festival double-bill world music shows featuring Derek Gripper’s African Strings Project and Trio Da Kali. Both acts performed hypnotic sets of indigenous ethnic music from their homelands to an enthralled crowd of rapt, mostly older listeners.
Gripper, of Cape Town, South Africa, is held in high esteem worldwide for his dedication to transposing melodies and songs commonly associated with the ancient Malian stringed gourd instrument the kora onto a modern classical guitar. He has done this through the use of alternate tunings and by emulating the fingering techniques of past kora masters. The results are beguiling to say the least.
He blended his own ethereal vocal moans and exhortations while he played a series of complex instrumental pieces on his small acoustic guitar. Gripper used the inherent resonance of the instrument in tandem with the natural acoustics of the large, hardwood and exposed brick room itself (which has a high, arched ceiling) to add a thick, full and quite round accompaniment to his own strumming, plucking and finger-picking of the nylon strings. This helped to fill out the negative space in these pieces, of which there was quite a lot.
His concentration was so deep during his performance, and the nature of these compositions was so percussive and filled with unexpected flourishes and brisk flurries of notes that, at times, it almost seemed as though the guitar was leading him, instead of the other way around.
After a few solo numbers, Gripper was joined on the low stage by fellow musicians Herbert Kinobe and Jean Bashengezi, both of Uganda. Both of these men are multi-instrumentalists and Kinobe showed himself to be a master of the likembe and/or the kalimba (a small, African piano that is played solely with both thumbs) and the kora, while Bashengezi performed on an electrified acoustic guitar through an amplifier, and added minimal percussion via a shaker mounted to one shoe and a small tambourine mounted to the other. Together, the three of them dove deep into lengthy, trance-like tunes which at times were reminiscent of the sort of melodies and harmonies one would associate with Scottish or Anglican folk, while still being imbued with the otherworldly overtones found in much of traditional African composition.
Eventually, Gripper left the stage to his two compatriots, and they offered up several songs by themselves, which included plenty of chanted and sung vocals, one of which in particular was written by Bashengezi and dedicated to his fellow citizens from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in support of the people during these violent and tumultuous times they currently endure.
After a brief intermission, Trio Da Kali took the stage. They celebrate the traditional Mandé culture of Southern Mali, and act as griots, passing down the history of their people through the oral tradition, and, in this case, through song. Their lead singer, Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté, comes from one of the most renowned musical families in that country, and the description of her vocal abilities as being reminiscent of the American gospel great Mahalia Jackson were spot-on. There were many similarities between the joyous noise she and her compatriots made — one on the malleted percussion instrument the balafon with the other on the electrified bass ngoni — and what we think of here in the States as being traditional blues or spirituals.
The melodies played on both of those instruments wove in and out of each other and created a near constant state of counterpoint, which would often circle around and sync up at predetermined moments for tricky unison note runs. In addition to her soaring vocals, Diabaté added a small bit of percussion to the group’s sound via a handheld agbe, which is a handmade gourd instrument covered with beads that is used as a rhythmic shaker. A modern-day version of this traditional folk instrument would be the metal and wood cabasa.
At the end of Trio Da Kali’s set, they invited Gripper, whom they called “The Maestro,” back to the stage, where he sat unobtrusively on a folding chair behind the group and joined in on a lengthy traditional African number that featured no small amount of improvisation from all concerned. Great joy was had onstage during this closing segment, and it seemed that all the musicians truly enjoyed this opportunity to work together in a land far from their own, in front of a respectful and enthusiastically impressed and entertained audience.