Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
A workshop for the Ghanaian percussion instrument the gyil (pronounced jeel singular, JEE-lee plural) will be held in Sci 101 on Monday, May 5, from 2-5 pm, followed by a concert performance at 7:30. Valerie Naranjo, an award winning percussionist and one of two westerners to have received first prize at Ghana’s Kobine Festival, will lead the performance and workshop.
The gyil, a mallet-played wooden keyboard set over gourd resonators, is played by the Dagara and Lobi people of North West Ghana, though there are variants performed in other portions of West Africa. The instrument, which has been at Swarthmore for several years in part due to the involvement of Swarthmore students studying in Ghana, became part of a Swarthmore ensemble group last fall and was highlighted in a workshop last fall by Naranjo’s mentor, the late Kakraba Lobi, a player and maker of gyil.
Naranjo, whose credits include working with “The Lion King” on Broadway, Philip Glass, and currently in the band for Saturday Night Live, is the first woman ever permitted by decree to perform the African gyil in public. Emeritus Chemistry Professor Judith Voet, a member of Swarthmore’s ensemble and an organizer of the event, with Myles Dakan ’10 and ensemble leader Gina Ferrera, explained in an e-mail that “I saw Valerie Naranjo perform on the gyil at Swarthmore several years ago and was fascinated by the beauty of the instrument as well as the music and rhythms that it produced… Students should not miss the opportunity to hear this world-famous gyil virtuoso perform.”
Gina Ferrera’s first experience hearing the gyil was similarly moving. A percussionist from the age of ten, she first heard the gyil performed by Naranjo in 2000 at a private living room performance. “I wasn’t crying,” she explains, “But tears were just coming down my face. From that day on, my goal was to try and study with her.” Ferrera became a student of Naranjo’s and went on to study in Ghana. After several years of continued study with Naranjo, Ferrera was eager to find a place to share this instrument with interested students. “As far as I know, there’s only a few people in the country who know about this music,” she observes.
Ferrera’s discovery of the gyil at Swarthmore was a dream come true. The gyil had been brought to Swarthmore by an alumna who had studied in Ghanna. A friend of Ferrera’s who worked at the school mentioned noticing the instrument in storage. Ferrera’s reaction was one of excitement and astonishment, “You mean to tell me that there’s ten xylophones in a closet in Swarthmore gathering dust!? …Around that time they were bringing Kakraba to the U.S. Valerie made a call to Sharon Friedler [Director of Swarthmore’s Dance Program] to bring Kakraba to Swarthmore. It all collided: I was here, I got to meet Sharon… in the fall we started the lessons through the Fetter program.”
The workshop and performance on Monday will be open to all interested students, though reservations, made by e-mailing Professor Voet at firstname.lastname@example.org, are recommended.