College Corner with Valerie Naranjo, Gyil Virtuoso

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.

Valerie Naranjo, whose credits as a percussionist include performing with Saturday Night Live, Philip Glass, and the Lion King on Broadway, is leading a gyil workshop from 2-5 and performance at 7:30 today, May 5, in Science Center Room 101. The Daily Gazette conducted an electronic interview with Ms. Naranjo to discuss her work and perspectives on gyil.

DG: For a first time listener to gyil, how do you suggest someone receives this music? Are there ideas that you would like your audience to be thinking about when they hear the gyil or to consider before listening to gyil for the first time?

VN: First I must thank my mentors in Ghana, especially the late Kakraba Lobi, who spent years teaching me this art.

People often comment on how the music seems like it’s coming from two players. One question that many people ask is “How to you split your brain that way?” (referring to the right and left hands seeming to play two different ideas at the same time.) For a first time listener I suggest that, without “studying” the music too much, try to catch the “dance” going on in the left hand and enjoy the dialogue [of] either the sung voice or the right hand. There will be CDs for sale, of myself with and without Kakraba, for later study, if need be….

DG: How do you feel playing the gyil has effected your life? [In a 2005 interview with World Percussion and Rhythm you described] Nichiren Buddhism, could you elaborate on the link between spirituality and music and how you have found this in gyil?

VN: Gyil, and “gyil culture” has effected my life in much the same way that practicing Buddhism has—it would take a book to describe the parallels between the two.

They are both life practices that transcend categorization. For me personally: I didn’t just like playing the gyil, I was almost obsessed with it. I remember first hearing my mentor, the late Kakraba Lobi, on disc. A friend and I had combed the record shops in Harlem looking for “African Marimba”. As soon as I heard the first strains of the gyil and accompanying Ghanaian kpanlogo drum (a hand drum masterfully played by the famous Tettey Addy) a light went on in my brain. “This is it! This is the music that I need to play.” I had practiced many things spiritually too. When I met Nichiren Buddhism, it just “felt correct” and has continued to bless and enable me to “make the impossible possible” in my life.

Both “life practices” are simple but profound. Gyil villagers and Buddhists have a life philosophy that:
1) I learn and understand this for myself. Yes there are mentors (in fact, they are essential) but I need to have the experience in my own life. Many young musicians spend years proving to themselves and others how fast, hard and loud they can play. As they get older, wiser, the musician “gets out of the way” the music REALLY flows, same in Buddhism.
2) All community members are connected—I help my friend—I am really helping the “I” that is my community.
3) My treasure is inside of my life, maybe some fancy and elegant “things” will come to to be in my life if I am happy first, not the other way around.
4) To get the good vibes flowing, I have to create them. In gyil-land you sing and dance. In Buddhism you chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
5) The past, present, and future are one.

DG: What do you want to cover in your workshop at Swarthmore? What ideas would you most like to explore with students?

VN: I hope to discuss and explore the “magic” of the gyil, and emphasize, as did my teachers, that gyil music is learned like one learns a language. Of course we will explore individual pieces of music for every level of experience, from one playing the gyil for the first time, to more experienced players.

DG: …It is clear that you have found peace and passion through music. Do you have advice to students who are trying to find these things now?

VN: Be very honest with yourself. While respecting and being a positive member of your family and community, please don’t get hung up on “what the others think”, When you are doing/being what is right for your self – and if that’s extraordinary – it means that you will bring something new to the table that will eventually encourage and inspire even your critics. But if not, please remember that whatever you do in life, someone will be excited about it, someone will criticize it, and someone will not care about it at all. Just move forward in the way that’s best for you. While using common sense, please don’t be afraid to explore the unknown, it’s an exciting place.

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