Concert to feature West African "gyil"

West African culture comes to Tennessee Technological University on Tuesday, Nov. 2, with a Brown Bag Lunch presentation from 11 a.m. to noon on the music and culture of the Lobi people followed by a concert at 7 p.m. featuring noted artists playing the complex gyil (pronounced jee-lee), the West African xylophone.

Both events are free and open to the public.

The brown bag luncheon will be held at the university's Black Cultural Center in the Roaden University Center, room 258, and will include information about the music and culture of the Lobi people of Ghana, West Africa. There will also be a video of a Lobi funeral, considered the most important rite of passage by the Lobi people, and a performance of Lobi funeral music.

The concert at 7 p.m. in Derryberry Hall will feature Kakraba Lobi, considered to be the gyil's spokesperson in Ghana by virtue of being one of the only living virtuosi to have mastered the vast and difficult repertoire, and possibly the only one to have gained international acclaim as a concert soloist, said TTU percussion professor Joseph Rasmussen and director of the university's West African drum and dance ensemble, Abusua.

Kakraba plays a xylophone called the Kogili (Ko-jee-lee), which has spiritual significance for the Lobi and the Birifor people of Northern Ghana. They believe that the xylophone acquires part of the soul of its maker and owner. In order to preserve this spiritual element, various objects may be added to the instrument, such as porcupine quills, ancestral carved figures, crosses cut into the tips of the keys or brass tacks inserted into the keys, explained Rasmussen.

Performing with Kakraba will be Valerie Naranjo, who is of Native American (Ute) and Latin American heritage. She first performed in Ghana's Kobine Festival of Traditional Music in 1988, after the chief of the festival's host community decreed that women be allowed, for the first time, to play the gyil publicly, Rasmussen said.

Valerie Naranjo arranged the percussion books for the Broadway hit, "The Lion King," and currently performs with both "The Lion King" and NBC's "Saturday Night Live." She has arranged, performed and recorded with Philip Glass, David Byrne, Selena, Tori Amos, Hugh Maskela and the international percussion ensemble, Megadrums.

Both Kakraba and Valerie Naranjo are considered expert performers on the gyil, "the grandmother of the mallet keyboard family," Rasmussen said.

The gyil is made from 14 wooden slats that are suspended, on a frame, over calabash gourds. "Its sounds are like our marimba, yet 'earthen,'" he added.

The gyil is the national instrument of the Dagara, Lobi and other nations of Ghana and Burkina Faso of Africa. Throughout West Africa, people believe that its woody sound comes from a vibration of water that physically balances the water in bodies of people and animals, Rasmussen said.

"Nearly every man and boy in a community can play at least a tune or two. Yet the gyil master (an instrument maker as well as player) studies the instrument much of his life before he is considered worthy to represent the community at sacred events," Rasmussen explained.

"In that capacity he is, much like a doctor, on call to heal emotional or physical illnesses," he said.

The Brown Bag Lunch presentation and concert are presented by the General Education Fund of the Center Stage series, the University Programming Committee and Abusua.