Notice of Online Archive

  • This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of the last page update.

    For questions about page contents, contact the Communications Division.

Throughout the ages in the Dagara nation within Ghana, women were forbidden to play the gyil, one of the many kinds of West African marimbas.

Valerie Naranjo changed all that when her extraordinarily skillful playing inspired a chiefly decree in 1988 that voided the restriction. Her diverse musical credits range from collaborations with Julie Taymor on The Lion King and The Tempest, to performing on Philip Glass’s Powaqqatsi soundtrack, to her current gig as resident percussionist in the “Saturday Night Live” band.

She will lead the percussion group Mandara, featuring guest dancers Peace Elewonu and Brian Tsagli and guest musician Bernard Woma, in music of the Dagari and Lobi cultures of West Africa 8 p.m. today at Lafayette’s Williams Center for the Arts. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 610-330-5009.

Naranjo has been lending her talents as percussionist, vocalist, composer, and musicologist to students this fall as Lafayette’s Alan and Wendy Pesky Artist-in-Residence for 2004-05. She is spending time this semester with a First-Year Seminar on West African Song and Rhythm and courses on world music and African religions in America.

She also is providing two free, public events at the Williams Center: a lecture-demonstration with musicians and dancers at noon today and a drum circle held yesterday evening.

The Wahington Post has praised Mandara’s music as “delicate, intense, incantatory,” while The Chicago Sun-Times has described its musicianship as “wonderfully versatile.” Mandara recently performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, on a tour of Japan, and as performers at festivals in Europe, Africa, and Mexico.

Naranjo has performed with artists and groups such as The Philip Glass Ensemble, David Byrne, Tori Amos, Selena, Airto, and the international percussion ensemble, Megadrums, which includes Milton Cardona, Zakir Hussein, and Glen Velez. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Composers Forum, and Meet the Composer.

She has dedicated herself to exploring the relationships between indigenous music in Africa and the Americas. A Colorado native of Ute and Latin descent, she is a specialist on the gyil, an instrument popular in a remote area of Ghana, which holds in its grace and complexity keys to African harmonic and polyrhythmic concepts. In 1996, she earned first place in the Kobine Traditional Festival competition, the first non-Ghanaian ever to do so.

Naranjo has researched and studied in seven other African countries, including extensive performance of traditional music and Mbaqanga (local jazz) in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In the United States, she received a B.A. in instrumental and vocal music at the University of Oklahoma and a master’s in performance and ethnomusicology at Ithaca College. She has studied with dozens of masters in America and Africa, including Leigh Howard Stevens, Gordon Stout, David Samuels, Ladji Camára, Adama Dráme, and Kakraba Lobi.

Mandara is a group of instrumentalists and vocalists from diverse ethnic and musical backgrounds. Its original music combines marimba, vibes, piano, bass, keyboards trombone, drums, and vocals with traditional instruments from Ghana, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, South Africa, and the Caribbean.

“There is so much to be gained, both musically and otherwise by studying the musical activity of the Dagari nation,” says Naranjo. “They successfully take music and other arts beyond the realm of concert and audience directly into the entire community, thereby building a common healing and invigorating language for the people.”

Peace Elewonu started dancing at age seven and performed with the National Dance Company of Ghana from 1988-2002. He attended the International Center for Contemporary and Traditional African Dance at Ecole Des Sable in Toubab Diawlaw in Senegal and continued his dance education in Monitoba, Canada under an Excellent Performer scholarship awarded by a Ghanaian association, which in 1994 declared him Best Dancer in Ghana.

Brian Tsagli began dancing at age 15 in a traditional folklore group call Gyagyeloir. He later joined a group called Omega Seven, serving as a leading member and acting as secretary, production manager, and stage manager. He now leads the Adehye Cultural Group of New York. He has traveled extensively in Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Bernard Woma began playing the gyil at age two and was introduced at age five to Ziem Tibo, a xylophone maker and player who became his mentor and guide. Woma soon became known for his musical abilities and was asked to play at funerals and weddings throughout the Upper West Region of Ghana. He went on to play with Ghana’s National Dance Company as solo xylophonist from 1989-2001. In 1990, he was honored with the Musician of the Year award, the only time such an award has been given to a percussionist. Through his work with the Ghana Dance Ensemble, he has traveled widely and developed proficiency on several traditional Ghanaian instruments. Woma owns and operates a school of traditional African music, The Dagara Music Center, in a northern suburb of Accra.

Last fall, Naranjo and trombonist/pianist Barry Olsen, her husband and a fellow Mandara member, performed and explained the ancient keyboard music of West Africa in three presentations at Lafayette. Olsen’s musical background includes composing and arranging in addition to performing. His artistry may be heard on recordings by, among others, David Byrne, Paul Simon, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Airto Moreira, and Paquito de Rivera.

The nationally recognized Performance Series at Lafayette attracts more than 10,000 people each season. It has been cited for performing excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, Chamber Music America, Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, Pennsylvania Arts and Humanities Councils, and Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

The 2004-05 Performance Series at Lafayette is supported in part by gifts from Friends of the Williams Center for the Arts; by the F.M. Kirby Foundation; by provisions of the Alan and Wendy Pesky Artist-in-Residence Program, J. Mahlon and Grace Buck Foundation, and Croasdale Fund; and by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Categorized in: News and Features