Cradle of Strong Compassionate Humanity


“Look back to the primordial roots of humankind. When one looks back to these roots, all become friends and comrades.”   —Daisaku Ikeda

By Valerie Naranjo

I couldn’t wait to see my Ghanaian hand drumming teacher Kofi Missiso’s face, hear his vibrant shout, see the way he gives every person his or her very own moment, taking each by the hand and saying each name. We’d patiently sat in Sunday traffic out of Accra, then turned off at Kasoa, a densely populated community 22 miles away. The car ambled through the typical bumps and ruts found in newly developed Ghanaian suburban residential roads to Kofi’s new abode, which was built recently by donations from students and other private supporters. Modest, yet beautiful, this two-family house in Kasoa is in a similar neighborhood as his old one in central Accra. Kasoa and Accra, like Ghana itself, are home to people of many West African ethnicities and are two of many places that exemplify translucent borders.

 Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Ghana is the traditional home to over 70 distinct ethnic groups—distinct in language, architecture, culinary art, dance and music. European colonial demarcations, in this case between Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Cote D’Ivoire, often separated clans and even families. Fortunately, Ghana’s first post-colonial president, Kwame N’krumah, created a ministry of culture, which operated a “tight ship.” Even in times without national phone service, correspondence was timely and swift—conducted through letters handed to and from State Transport Bus drivers. Under President N’krumah, ethnic and cultural distinction and difference even further became a source of community pride and self empowerment. Ghana is known among West Africans as “the friendliest country.” Indeed one can almost physically feel the life force of an emotionally, spiritually, and communicatively strong people who know from where they come.

Master dancer/choreographer Sulley Imoro was kind enough to drive and accompany us that day. The moment that Kofi and Sulley saw each other they realized that they had a deep connection from the past—another wonderful reunion between artists. Sulley, a former member of the National Dance Company of Ghana, is celebrated for his uncanny ability to lead American dance students directly to the heart of Ghanaian dance. Because of this talent, he has traveled America and many other countries several times. I met Sulley in New York, and bumped into him at the Arts Council in Accra just as I began to dance with my NYU West African drumming students in 2012. How fortunate I was to have many private dance lessons with such a great master.

I’d met Kofi’s mentor, the late Godwin Agbeli, a great master drummer of Ewe styles, in 1988. I studied briefly with him in New York, and continued during those first two journeys to Ghana (1988 and 1989). During my first trip to Ghana, Godwin made sure that I didn’t travel until I felt completely comfortable. He even assigned me a personal guide when I first traveled the long and slow journey to the Upper West region, the home of the gyil and its people. (By the time I left on the State Transport Bus yard, we'd decided that a guide wasn’t necessary.) My first two journeys to the town called Lawra, home of my first gyil teacher. Newin Baaru, and the pre-harvest gyil Kobine Festival (1988, 1989) were pure magic.

Gyil is one of many kinds of marimbas found throughout Africa. Its sound is as a kaleidoscope is to the eye, a matrix of interlocking melodies in constant conversation. The right-hand improvisation, left-hand harmony placement on the keyboard (of, at least, the simplest of tunes), and the theme-improv-theme form clearly show that West Africa is indeed where jazz originated. Wildly complicated, yet simple and funky in its essence, gyil music is soothing and invigorating at the same time.

 Valerie Naranjo PLaying the Gyil Photo by J. Maya Luz

Valerie Naranjo PLaying the Gyil
Photo by J. Maya Luz

I began my primary study in Ghana with gyil master Kakraba Lobi during my third visit in 1991. I soon felt the need to add to my study something that was less mentally and physically taxing than Kakraba’s complicated gyil repertoire, which left my head spinning after every lesson. Godwin suggested that I study hand drumming with Kofi Missiso.

Kofi became an Arts Council uncle to me. I learned the subtleties of Ghanaian hand drumming one rhythm at a time, under his friendly yet strict eye. I drummed in rehearsals of his Sankofa Dance Society, and therein enjoyed the company of some of Accra’s choice dancers and musicians. We solved problems together, from framing paintings to transporting drums.

Kofi was one of Ghana’s greatest master drummer/choreographer/dance company leaders until one day in 2007, when he suffered several massive strokes, leaving his right side incapacitated. Some of his students and dance company members left him, yet many remained by his side, at least from time to time.

 Kakraba Lobi Photo by Salvino Campo

Kakraba Lobi
Photo by Salvino Campo

My primary gyil mentor, the late Kakraba Lobi, is hailed as the artist who took this obscure instrument from the village to the international concert stage. As the founding gyil maestro of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, at the University of Ghana’s International Center of African Music and Dance, he often played gyil solos to accommodate costume and set changes. Soon promoters in Europe and Asia realized that he played incredible music, and, as a soloist he was cost effective. Soon Kakraba was traveling as an international soloist.

Kakraba was very sharp; he had the life force of three normal people. He was fond of children, and held a respected place in his neighborhood, Mamobi, a crossroads of West African ethnicities often called “the ghetto” of Accra. When asked by his family why he didn’t leave “the ghetto,” he said, “I can’t leave. These are my people!”

Years before I traveled to Ghana, when I was a freshman at the University of Colorado, I learned about West African solo marimba from a Ghanaian doctoral student. After a long search I found the recording “Kakraba Lobi—Xylophone Player from Ghana.” When I heard the first notes, I knew that I would study with Kakraba. The music was somehow familiar to me, although I never could recall hearing it before in this lifetime.

 Kakraba Lobi and Valerie Naranjo Photo by Kofi Missio

Kakraba Lobi and Valerie Naranjo
Photo by Kofi Missio

In the years that followed he taught me not only the incredible music of the gyil, but about the special social responsibility that an artist can choose to assume. Our classes usually started at dawn and ended around 10 a.m., when the sunshine broke over the walls of his home into his little courtyard where we met for lessons. Every so often someone would come over, excuse themselves for interrupting, take Kakraba aside and quietly ask him for “emergency funds.” For them his pockets were never empty. Not only was he father to many who had no physical parent, he wrote many songs that educated his community about such problems as international arms sales, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, and the foolishness of not finding one’s true life’s work.

In 1996 Kakraba was asked by Japanese promoters to tour elementary schools with an accomplished child gyil player of his choice, so as to encourage Japanese students to do their best in the arts. Ba-ere Yotere (the child that he chose, whom he considered his “gyil son") once recounted, “This very famous gyil player who was originally from my village came to us on a moto (dirt bike). He interviewed and listened to many of us play, and told me that in a few weeks he would return for me. I didn’t believe him. But just as he promised, Mr. Kakraba returned to Saaru and took me to Accra for two weeks. Then we boarded a plane and flew to Japan to tour.” Kakraba and Ba-ere toured again two years later. I met Ba-ere years after that, when Kakraba invited him to one of my lessons.

During our Translucent Borders trip in August, we paid visits to Ba-ere, who is now one of the most celebrated musicians at the arts council. What a pleasure to sit in his recently constructed two-storey workshop and living quarters and listen to him play the traditional gyil music that he has been teaching me for years now.

This music is not only for the ears and mind. The niira wood of the instrument’s keyboard is said to create a water vibration that tethers with the water in human beings and other mammals, creating harmony and well-being. Lobi and Dagara people believe that the niira tree, from which the keyboard of the gyil is made, is the home to the kontombe, the keepers of beauty, balance, and good in society. As one Arts Council member mentioned to me, “The gyil is the mascot of our region.” Like other professions, gyil mastery usually runs in family lines. A jealously guarded art, it takes much of a lifetime to master the extensive and complicated traditional repertoire, taught note by note from maestro to student.

I traveled to Ghana’s Northern and Upper West regions to learn about this music, and soon realized how much that music reflects its society. I am not fluent in the Lobi/Brifo language, and one can never fully realize the depths of a community’s spirituality in such a state. Yet because of the manner in which life in Lawra, Saaru, Tuna, Kalba and all of the small Lobi villages in which I have lived reflects my early life in rural Native America, I’ve come to understand several beliefs that define how people like the Lobi/Brifo, who live close to the earth, live as a great community:

• The past, present, and future are one. If you want to know your future, look at the causes that you are making now. If you want to know why you are in a certain situation, look at your past. This very moment is really all that we have. Lobi folks savor a good dialogue. They take their time and act carefully and with love and respect. They appreciate the power of the moment, and do not take the presence of others for granted. Primary in that awareness is the presence of those who came before us (the ancestors). Such appreciation and good will toward one’s roots is central to Lobi life.

• You and I are the same: in Ghana’s Northern Region and Upper West, everyone is born onto the same land, usually within a small community. Friendships are strong, and families and communities are unified in purpose.

• What is yours is mine and what is mine is yours. The practice of collective economics is the norm. I have an oven and you have bicycle repair tools. I go to your house and repair my bike, you come to my house and together we bake our bread. Individual families don’t need to have as many of the kind of amenities (sewing machines, axes, etc.) that allow each family to isolate itself in its self-sufficiency. Because of the practice of collective economics, there is a distinct richness in communities that actually don’t have much materially.

It was lovely, during our recent trip, to reconnect with the legacy of my and Kofi’s Ewe arts mentor, the late Godwin Agbelli, on our visit to the Dagbe Center, a 3 1/2 hour drive from Accra, along the coast of the gulf of Guinea in Ghana’s Volta Region. “Dagbe” means “good luck” in Ewe. The Ewe people, traditionally coastal dwellers and fishers, are a large and powerful nation, who span Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, and Togo. They play perhaps the most internationally well-known Ghanaian drumming styles with large drum orchestras and beautiful songs.

The Dagbe Center was built by Godwin and his family for the local and international study of Ewe drumming and dance. Godwin put his hometown, Kopeyia, on the international map in this manner while he was an artist in residence and co-director at the National Arts Council of Ghana, in Accra. Godwin was a cultural father to countless students, both local artists and visitors from all over the globe. Godwin’s son, Emmanuel Agbeli, is the current director of the center. Emmanuel and his family and staff hosted a wonderful dance/drumming/song presentation for us. Bravo to Emmanuel and Nani, his younger brother, currently African dance professor at California Institute of the Arts!

It has been difficult to leave such a balanced society. I have often wondered what might happen if the wisdom of rural West Africans could be transported to our American educational system. Perhaps there one could then find another cradle of strong, compassionate humanity.

Kofi Missio and Valerie Naranjo
Photos by Andy Teirstein