“If you've ever had the split-second opportunity to spy Naranjo in action when SNL cuts to a commercial break, you've witnesses a blur of energy behind a fortress of percussion.”
—Andy Doershuk, DRUM! Magazine, May 2005

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Gyil: The West African Virtuoso Keyboard

This article was written for Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians' union (AFM Local 802). For more background, see www.Local802afm.org.

There was a time when the mere timbre of a traditional non-European instrument was enough to pay sufficient tribute to a “world” oriented” musical work. Thanks to such composers as Lebo M. - The Lion King, and Bill Whelan – Riverdance; the techniques of traditional musics, not only their timbres, have been brought to the American stage. My specialty in this regard is the West African keyboard called gyil (pronounced JEEL, JEE lee, plural).

The gyil has a pentatonic keyboard consisting of 14-18 wooden bars which are played with two rubber bound mallets. Its rich, buzzy timbre is produced by membranes spread over holes in the instrument’s gourd resonators. Traditional gyil music is soulful and healing, and complex enough to trick the uninitiated listener into believing, as I did on first listening, that more than one musician is playing.

The gyil is from the region of West Africa where the borders of Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Côte D’Ivoire meet. There the people believe that the instrument establishes a sacred connection to the spirit world. Its keys are fashioned from the wood of the Niira tree, which houses the Kontombe - spirit keepers of beauty, balance and good within the community.

Dozens of mallet keyboard instruments, each with different timbres, tuning systems, and performance techniques are found throughout the African continent. The term "balafon" is a generic term akin to the word “xylophone”, meaning a wooden barphonic instrument. The gyil is known for being the "virtuoso solo balafon", with a traditional repertoire that has inspired the awe of musicians throughout Africa and beyond. Its music has been described as a kaleidoscope of complex melodies in constant conversation, rapid-fire, yet transparent.

When writing for gyil a composer should consider the instrument available. What key is it in? Traditionally there is no fixed pitch among gyili. Fortunately for us, The Pan African Orchestra, Ghana's first large ensemble of indigenous instruments, introduced Western tuning to West African pitched instruments. The gyil’s most common keys in the U.S. are G and C major and Bb minor pentatonic. Although there are gyil makers who will construct an instrument in whatever key is needed and ship it. (Ba-ere Yotere, Christopher Doozie), it is more cost affective to write for an instrument that is already available to you.

The next consideration is; who is going to play the instrument - ideally someone who has studied it. However if such a person is not available, a competent marimbist can learn the basics of gyil. Please give that musician plenty of time to learn their part, as the topography of the instrument is more akin to a multi-percussion set up than it is to a chromatic marimba.

The most efficient way to notate for the gyil, is on two staffs, the lower for the left hand - upper for the right, somewhat like piano music, but with a shared cross bar among eighth and sixteenth notes in the different staffs. That way the musician can readily understand the rhythmic relationship between one hand and the other.

The gyil combines well with Western Instruments. The composer must be careful to avoid obscuring the instrument’s lower register (lower bass clef F or G to the A a ninth or tenth above it) with other instruments in that register, unless he/she is actually doubling the gyil's bass lines. High woodwinds, and high strings do not hide the instrument's sound in such a manner.

Examples of contemporary Ghanaian composers who fuse with Western orchestras:

Click to play

ba-ere's darkpo 052914

Fumaa Mix 6 KC 030212

1) Fumaa Kpiche Naamwin Je (We Will All go to God) - Ba-ere Yotere/orch. Leon Pendarvis
2) Gmeng Se Naah Eee (What Shall We Do?) Ba-ere Yotere/orch. Andrew Beall
3) Fer Barre Kona Jeno (Don’t Play Favorites) Trad./orch. Andrew Beall (Bachovich Music Publications).

Please also refer to the transcription series "West African Music for the Marimba Solist" (Kakraba Lobi and others) and Ba-ere Yotere's beginner method book "Kokolo" to observe traditional gyil compositional techniques. (www.mandaramusic .com)

Valerie Naranjo, a local 802 member since 1991, is the percussionist for NBC's Saturday Night Live Band, and Broadway's The Lion King, is a gyil solist/clinician, teaches African percussion at New York University, and has authored transcriptions, concerti, and a method book for gyil.


"Knock on Wood" lives on...

It was selected to screen as part of the recently concluded Humanity Explored Film Festival, which was seen by 5.5M people from 220+ countries.

Now, "Knock on Wood" is streaming on-line at the Green Unplugged Film Festival. Under the auspices of Culture Unplugged, the festival aims to present inspiring stories that give viewers an opportunity to reflect upon our collective consciousness and envision what is possible.

Valarie Naranjo Marimba Soloist




Valerie wins again!

The 2011 Drum! Magazine Reader's Poll has elected Valerie winner of the "Drummies" award in the Mallet Category, and runner up in the Clinician category. This is her third Drummie award.   

West African Marimbist   Click here on the above image for a PDF version.

The Gyil
Most of the World's popular musics have looked to the African tradition for their driving force and breath. Many of the West's percussion instruments also have their roots in Africa. The gyil, one of those, is the national instrument of the Dagara and Lobi people of West Africa, who believe that the vibration of its wood resonates with the water in the bodies of human beings and animals, able to change the condition of life; and especially helpful to heal mental, physical, and emotional malady.

The sound is a dazzling conversation among several musical elements. What makes the gyil unique among African marimbas (balophone, madjimba, etc) is its technique, in which a single musician sings, plays bass, comps chords, and improvises simultaneously, setting a spellbinding example of right hand/left hand/vocal meta-dependence. The gyil's format of playing is related to the concept of improvising used in jazz. (Please refer to "the gyil" and "writings" areas for more info.)

Latest CD!

Our Latest CD has a new look   Please note that the CD Mandara Music Sampler is the repackaged "World Music for Western Percussion Ensemble".  Mandara Music Sampler has exactly the same great percussion ensemble pieces as does the World  Music for Western Percussion Ensemble. Mandara Music Sampler, while being a guide for percussion ensembles using Western instruments, is also a great listen. This "Best of" CD provides example ensemble recordings for Abibigromma, and Guun -  for soloist and percussion quartet (Ghana), Tommy Tall Bird (Dineh, Native America) and "Rising (Naranjo, Olsen, Palombo); for the West African Music for the Marimba Soloist transcriptions Wenda Kanawa, Kpanlogo, Jong Kpek Kple, Kaang Kuon Kpar, and Fer Barre Kona Jeno (the trio version. The Orchestral Version can be found on the CD Concertos by the CYO of Cleveland.) There are also included new selections for the recent WAMMS transcription book "Song Collection #2"  The new title Mandara Music Sampler has made the CD friendlier to listeners who are not specifically percussionists.

Mandara CD

World Music

Barry and Valerie in the Documentary film Knock on Wood   


Knock on Wood is about how a single individual can change the status quo. This documentary by Ron Grunhut is the story of Valerie's groundbreaking first trip to Ghana, where her quest to master an obscure West African marimba led to an unexpected change in the area's relationship to its women.

Knock on Wood has shown recently at the Woodstock, Big Apple, and Nashville Film Festivals, as well as the Desmond Lee Africa World Documentary Film Festival (St. Louis, Missouri and Bridgetown, Barbados), the "Tiburon International Film Festival" in California, and "The United Nations Association Film Festival" at Stanford University.


Mandara Music's most recent releases
Banda Jel

Banda Jel - advanced, for 5 octave marimba - Kakraba Lobi's "self portrait" composition proceeds from gentle gospel-like themes to grooves with the blues shuffle-like 12/8 feel. 


Song collection Number 2 - three short traditional pieces in three different grooves; one easy (for 4 1/3 octave marimba) , one intermediate (for 4 1/2 octave marimba), and one advanced (for 5 octave marimba).



Please read a new article by Valerie "Kakraba Lobi Memorial" in the "writings" section

Check out the new articles and interviews from DRUM! magazine and World Percussion Rhythm magazine and interview here.


Barry and Valerie have been performing together since 1982. With the kind assistance of Nobuco "Cobi" Narita (The Universal Jazz Coalition) and countless others, they went from local libraries, parks, museums, and New York City Public schools to the international stage, where, in 1996, they performed in the Kobine Festival of Traditional Music in Lawra, Ghana, where they were honored as the first non-West Africans to be awarded a first prize.

As a duo, they have performed at festivals worldwide including The Percussive Arts Society International Conference (1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001); The New Music Festival (Leon, Mexico); Semana Internacional de Percusiones (Mexcio City); El Primer Festival Internacional de Marimbistas (Chiapas, Mexico); The Bath Festival (Bath,England); and Arts Alive (Johannesburg, South Africa). In July 2005, they were performers and clinicians at the 25th Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, and have been invited to return in 2006.

They co-direct the multi-instrumental/vocal quintet Mandara, which has performed at such venues as the Kaisuka Festival (Japan), Lincoln Center, and The Kennedy Center. (Please see "about Mandara").

About Mandara

Valerie Dee Naranjo is a marimbist, percussionist, vocalist, and composer who is exploring, in her work, the relationships between indigenous music in West Africa and popular music in America.

Barry Olsen is a trombonist, pianist, percussionist and composer who is extensively involved in exploring, performing and recording the musics of Africa and the Americas, especially Latin Jazz and Latin dance music.

Mandara is a quintet of multi-instrumentalists/vocalists that performs music of West and southern Africa and the diaspora, and original works on instruments from many countries.

Mandara Music Publications provides printed materials for the pedagogy and performance on the African Gyil.
MANDARA MUSIC RECORDINGS highlights Valerie's three solo CDs, as well as the work of Ghanian gyil masters Kakraba Lobi and Bernard Woma in collaboration with Valerie and Barry.

The Gyil is an ancient marimba that requires great mastery to play. It is the national instrument of the Dagara and Lobi nations of Ghana, Burkina Faso and Côte D'ivoire.

Writings features extensive written works about Mandara and about Valerie and her work, and articles by Valerie about the gyil and other percussion instruments, and her explorations of African and Native American music.


Copyright © 1999-2005 Valerie Naranjo and Mandara Music. All Rights Reserved.
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