For many years, retreaters have enjoyed learning the Ghanaian Gyil from one of the foremost Gyil experts in the Western world. We've all seen her jaw-dropping performances at the Saturday Night Concert each year at the Retreat, and we all know her insane resume: playing weekly on Saturday Night Live, Broadway shows, film scores, teaching at New York University, and so much more.
During all this commercial work, she finds time to write, record, and perform the music she is passionate about as well. As one of the top percussionists around, Valerie is a great role model for women and girls in music. In this interview - from her website mandaramusic.com - Valerie discusses her teachers in West Africa, and being a women in the drumming business.
Valerie Naranjo Interview by Terry Reimer
World Percussion and Rhythm - Summer 2005
WPR: What have you been up to in the last couple of years since we spoke?
Naranjo: These days, SNL and other commercial projects are going well; and I have been playing West African music on solo marimba, and on gyil with Barry Olsen here in the US more than ever. I’m really excited about this, first because I love meeting other American players and sharing this percussion music with them; second because I am in the middle of recording a CD of pieces by Kakraba Lobi, my mentor from Ghana. (One of my favorites is a ten “movement” arrangement of songs in the style “Guun” which sounds beautiful on marimba.) As a soloist I learn music twice, first in a private way in the practice room. The second learning experience is when both my audience comrades and I are experiencing the spirit of the music. There is a lot more to learn then about communicating and about reaching people where they are at that moment.
WPR: Tell us a bit about the recording experience for you. What is it like in the studio?
Naranjo: I am fortunate to be recording these days primarily at a place called Kaleidoscope Sound, in Union City, New Jersey run by a genius percussionist Randy Crafton. Music in the studio is one of the scariest yet most rewarding experiences that I ever have. In the studio I am playing for the future. I imagine my audience – someone skating in the park listening on their MP3 player next summer, someone driving in a car after an argument with a loved one two years from now. I once received an e-mail from a woman who had Ute Sun Song played during her surgery. I feel a great level of responsibility! Yet, with recorded music I can change things, add more or take away things, tweak dynamics, and sculpt the music in ways that I may not be able to do live.
WPR: Have you had some especially good experiences lately?
Naranjo: One of the last times that I was studying with Kakraba, he stood up and said: “You need to go to my village (the village Tuna where he was born) and study with my cousin Sei Sikolo. “But I’m learning enough here with you.” I said. “Sei will teach you gyil music as a language.” I set out with my student and friend, the renowned geology professor/gyil player Kathy Schubel. Tuna is a farming village in Ghana’s Upper West Region. The housing is simple and elegant – stucco, mainly. The people are special! Very warm, close to you, close to each other. Small, handsome, bright-eyed and in his 80’s, Sei is considered THE repository of old style gyil playing. Our classes were done partially in public. Sei wanted the women and children to understand that they CAN play this instrument, (and should consider rekindling this fading art) and he wished for all to note that gyil study takes a considerable amount of concentration and effort. I did have several sessions with Sei in private. I was shocked the first time he refused to leave after showing me something wildly complicated, but stayed to watch me practice (for hours). “I must stay here to make sure that you have learned correctly. Otherwise your practice will be wasted.” The old style sacred gyil music in Tuna is so lyrical that at times it is impossible to “count”. Since this music is based on spoken work, it is rhythmically flexible.
WPR: How’s the New York scene for percussion lately? Is it competitive? Any tips for getting gigs (in NY or anywhere – generally)?
Naranjo: I’ve heard drummers becoming more proficient at making their own percussion tracks when they record (not good for percussion gigs). On the other hand, more Broadway and other kinds of live shows are incorporating percussion instruments more than ever. I think that the New York scene is competitive for any musician. I happened to “do it backwards” many of my comrades tell me. When I moved to New York in 1981, I was delighted to get a little gig in an Italian restaurant near the Javitz Center (New York’s main convention center, about to be built then). I was able to play basically whatever I wanted as long as I would “make the people feel happy” (as my boss would remind me). One of those customers recommended that I “hit the street” with my music. One of the first times that I played in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art one of Barry’s jazz musician friends happened by. A few days later visiting Barry at our apartment he said, “Man, I like what you did out there, but you need to talk about what you do. COMMUNICATE with the people, make them feel comfortable and informed.” I come from a family (Native American from Southern Colorado) that played music to bond and to feel happy together, so those reminders early in my career here have been valuable. If people like your energy as well as your musical abilities, they will seek you out.
WPR: Share with us any struggles you’ve encountered as a female percussionist or encouragement/advice you could give to women.
Naranjo: I’ve been lucky to be in the company of musicians who seem to appreciate what I do. Especially since things are going so well, I have been taking the advice that one of my Buddhist comrades, Linda Johnson recently wrote to women: “The spirit to challenge and explore our limitless possibilities is a gift that we can only give to ourselves. It is a gift that we deserve and that will profoundly change the confidence and conviction we have in ourselves. Working together, we can have a profound impact on each other. This belief is essential to a life condition of happiness, and it runs counter to society’s continual message to women that we are not slim enough, pretty enough, talented enough etc.” We are alive to be happy. I find that those who are happy don’t spend a lot of time focusing on their problems and weaknesses. Instead they are always imagining new solutions, new ideas. Please remember, no matter who you are or how much you accomplish, someone will love, hate, envy, ridicule, and praise your work. The key is to develop the life condition to respect everyone as a human being, even our adversaries, and especially ourselves. Those who can do that just can’t lose in life. Many of us (including myself) sometimes encounter the “Oh, SHE! Uhhh..... well SHE’S an OK player for a girl” thing, remember just being who you are and doing what you do, you are changing an old and established image. The only way to change a preconceived image (which enlightens us all) is to stay out there. Keep gigging, keep studying, keep taking your art to another level, and especially, keep believing in yourself and your role as a woman in the percussion world. There’s a place for you.
WPR: Tell us about the power of sound vibrations and the link to spirituality (for ex: Nam-Myoho_Renge_Kyo and/or Lobi music)
Naranjo: Nichiren Buddhism (the practice of chanting Nam Myoho Rengo Kyo), like Native American practice, like Lobi life practice, uses sound vibration to produce a change in fundamental life condition including intellect, emotion, even physical health. It uses sound to open the place of pure beauty that exists in every human being. These life practices function according to the belief that we humans are fundamentally excellent. This is not the idea of perfection. Mistakes and our problems, evils, and negativity are part of the process of growing. Excellent sound vibration is absolute and can with consistency, strip away our delusions, uncover our fundamental excellence, and actually use life’s negativity to build indestructible happiness and beauty. I have been a musician for most of my life and a Buddhist for 22 years. Unlike music, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is a sound vibration that ANY person can produce any time any place to produce profound results.
WPR: Can you explain the West African “swing styles” of Joro, Guun and Darkpey?
Naranjo: All three of these styles are enacted, traditionally, during the funeral. Death to new life via the funeral is a Lobi or Dagara person’s most important rite of passage. It is believed that the gyil maestro’s music produces THE sound vibration that moves the soul of the deceased from this world to the next one. Very serious assignment! Novices are not allowed to play gyil for a funeral. It always amazes me that this assignment has nothing to do with virtuosity, although the music is awesomely difficult! These styles are in 12/8 time. And the maestro and lead dancer change these groupings at will. This creates a kaleidoscope, ever changing time sense, yet the time stays solid.
WPR: How’s the Saturday Night Live gig going?
Naranjo: It is great. Hillary Swank was just on two weeks ago. What an actress!! We in the house band have been the same musicians for several years now, and the vibe just gets better and better. Lenny Picket leader and tenor player, Leon Pendarvis: md and keys, Katrice Barnes: arranger and keys, and drummer Shawn Pelton especially, have been the kind of inspiration that makes being a musician a genuine privilege.