What is a gyil? This today's entry is an interview (my first interview ever!) I did with my private teacher and mentor, Ba-ere Yotere. This past July I spent two weeks studying gyil with Ba-ere in Accra, Ghana; it is an incredibly powerful xylophone that takes a large amount of focus, dedication, and stamina to learn. This interview is intended for musicians that may or may not have been exposed to the gyil before. For those that are interested, Ba-ere is taking on students any time of the year. He lives in the Art Center in Accra, Ghana. Not only does he teach traditional gyil playing, but he is a fantastic composer and writes some beautifully intricate pieces for gyil that are certainly worth learning and listening to. It has been a joy and honor to study with Ba-ere; at the bottom of the interview are performance videos of Ba-ere that demonstrate his musicality, skill, and joy on the instrument. Feel free to comment, ask questions, and most of all, enjoy!
Ba-ere Yotere Interview, July 22, 2016
L: What is a gyil?
B: Gyil is an instrument that comes from the Lobi society. The gyil was discovered in a forest. A hunter who went to the bush to hunt animals found a deer playing the gyil. He wanted to shoot the deer, but he found that the deer was playing something that sounded nice. He decided to drive the deer away and take the gyil home. According to history, that is how the gyil was discovered.
L: I see. What is it?
B: It is an instrument that is used for funerals, festivals, and entertaining places.
L: How old is it? I mean, how long has it been around?
B: Well, for the age, I can’t best tell. But a gyil, if I made a gyil for you and you know how to take care of it and protect it, it can last about twenty years.
L: Sure, sure. How is the gyil different from other xylophones?
B: Our gyil is 14 keys. It is portable, unlike other Dagara xylophones which are typically 18 keys, which is very big.
L: How did you get started playing? What’s the beginning of your story?
B: Thank you. The beginning of my story… I started playing at the age of 7 years. At that time, my grandfather, Dannah, may his soul rest in perfect peace, trained me to become who I am today. He trained me a lot; we had twenty grandchildren in the house but, you know, he’s an old man. He can see that I have a vision to play gyil. So he had to draw his attention to me. He always trained me, sending me to do spiritual things for him, he trained me in all of that stuff. He would always sit down with me and teach me how to do this, play this. When he’s done, he would go and allow me to continue to sit and play. When I get to some point and I make a mistake, he will come again and say, “No, when you reach here, THIS is the next one.” So that is how he trained me.
L: I see. If you made a mistake, would he get angry?
B: Not at all. No, he doesn’t get angry. He would rather correct me and encourage me to move forward, because he said it happened to him before.
L: That’s wonderful. In the Lobi Society, how is the gyil used and why?
B: Ok, the gyil is the instrument we use for our funerals and entertaining places and festivals. Because we don’t have tape, the Obruni (white person) brought tape *laughs*, we have gyil and the drum called gangan. These are the instruments we use at our funerals, festivals, and entertainment places.
L: When you play gyil, or when it is played at funerals and festivals, what else is happening?
B: Well, when you play at a festival, people dance a lot and also it makes the place noisy for people to draw their attention. Those who feel bored, if the gyil is played they become happy because they are dancing, and those who cannot dance they watch the dancers and they feel happy.
L: Wonderful. We met in 2013 at Lawrence University, you were doing a performance with Valerie Naranjo and I took one lesson with you and it was fantastic. The performance was incredible too! Two questions: how did you meet Valerie, what’s the story behind that? And also, where else did you go during your visit to the US?
B: Ok, I met Valerie in 2007 when her late teacher, Kakraba Lobi, passed away. She came to the funeral and, you know, in the Lobi Society, when somebody dies, the other xylophonists will come together at the funeral and give them the opportunity, one by one, to perform. So it reached my turn, and the crowd I pulled, the whole funeral was shaking like fire. So Valerie and her husband, Barry, could not sit. They walked up to where I was performing. You know, the gyil means “surround” - that is the meaning of the word, “gyil.” To surround something. The people were surrounding me, I have drawn their attention. They came and joined the crowd. After I finished, she held my hand and asked me where I’m from. She said oh, I’d like to work with you. We were together since 2007 up to date, and in 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to the US. I’ve been to a few universities.
L: Yup, you were in Wisconsin…
B: Yes, Pennsylvania University, NYU, Ohio, and a few other universities.
L: And you’re still working with Valerie, correct? In fact, she’s coming in a couple weeks?
B: Yes, next week Sunday.
L: That’s wonderful! For students that have never played gyil before, is it difficult? What kind of advice would you give to someone that’s just beginning?
B: Well, the advice I would give to someone that is just beginning to learn the gyil is simple. You have to, first of all, focus your mind on it. This instrument, if you want to learn, you focus your mind on it. Make sure you have time for it and have time for what you just learned. And also, do not be jealous of your teacher.
L: What do you mean?
B: Well, I’ve had students before. The way I play, they want to play the same at once. And when they fail to play they become angry. They think that I did not train them well, but that is not how I learned. I learned and struggled before. It is about determination, you have to focus your mind and make sure you do the right thing all the time.
L: Sure, sure. That’s wonderful. I’ll ask one more question: What have you found to be the most rewarding part about playing this instrument?
B: Oh, I’ve found a lot of joy in it. Through this instrument I’ve toured with Kakraba in Japan, and have also toured with Valerie in the US. If I don’t know how to play gyil, I wouldn't have been able to know these places.
L: The opportunity to travel and to see the world…
B: Yes, to see the world, and also, through the gyil, students come all the way from the US, Japan, Russia, UK, and study with me. And so I think it is great.
L: Yeah! You told me this story once, and just because we are doing the interview, I’d like for you to tell it again. When you’re at the funeral, and immediately the energy… You know?
B: The energy?
L: Yeah, there’s something between you and the instrument.
B: Yes, the traditional songs are totally different than entertaining songs. The traditional songs take roughly three hours to finish.
L: For one song?
B: For three or four songs. First we have something that we call, “Pre.” Pre is like a demonstration piece. So after Pre, if it is a man that passed away, then you start a man’s song which is called “Darkpo.” So after Darkpo, you go to “Tsikwarbone,” which means a farmer’s song. The farmer has passed away, and that is the song they play to honor the farmer. Even if the person that has passed away was not a farmer, they still play Tsikwarbone; it is compulsory to play it. Then the next is called “Guun,” which means “to run and dance.” You see a bird; when you see a bird fly, like an eagle, when it flies at top speed and it is studying something to catch, like a chicken or something, it normally slows the speed and then moves fast. That is Guun.
L: I see. And that’s when the dancers get all excited…
B: Yes, exactly. That’s when the dancers get excited and they challenge themselves. Some will run on the left side, others run on the right, and they all meet at a point within the funeral ground. That is where they meet and show their skills.
L: Yeah! Great. Well, thank you so much.
B: Yes, and thank you for having me.
Throughout my Lawrence education and time afterwards spent studying folkloric music derived from West Africa, I've experimented with a series of exercises to help gain a greater understanding of the macro "feel" that many of these styles are rooted in, namely the rather ambiguous meter of 12/8. These two numbers mean that there are twelve pulses in one bar, and the eighth note gets the pulse. From here, we can divide this feel into different subdivisions; we can imply 3/4, 6/8, 6/4, 2/4, 1/8, etc. Going between these different meters, while keeping consistent time and fluid rhythm, is difficult! John Riley gives some fantastic exercises in his book The Jazz Drummer's Workshop, using these styles to broaden the understanding, vocabulary, and dexterity of the jazz student. However, a friend and colleague of mine, Andy Schultz, recently introduced me to another text that dives a bit deeper: Riddim by Billy Martin. Martin explores not only the dexterity and vocabulary, but an endless pallet of options for the student to practice going in-between the different subdivisions mentioned above. There is no one correct way to feel these rhythms; the goal and the purpose is to feel it "as is" - to let it move you and to ultimately understand all of the subdivisions at the same time. It's only at this point that one can transcend the barrier of the mind and communicate effectively and effortlessly to the other players in the ensemble. After all, it's all just conversation anyway! I've spent the past two weeks working on the first page alone, and have already felt tremendous growth. Check it out and let me know what you think!