Nong Voru, translated from Dagara to English as 'Fake Love', captures the journey of xylophonist Alfred Kpebesaane's (pronounced Kway-Beh-SAH-Nay) origins from the Upper West Region of Ghana to NYC, channeling a novel and eclectic collaboration blending traditional Ghanaian xylophone (gyil) with computer processing and electronic synths by keyboardist producer Brittany Anjou. On Nong Voru, one hears Alfred’s characteristic eccentricities shouted atop his hypnotic master xylophone, Anjou’s melodic at-times-detuned mirroring keyboards playing the traditional role of support xylophone, and the rarest of rare: gyil sampled into electronic sounds of ping pong fractals, by creative Brooklyn-based computer musician Michael Clemow.
Alfred Kpebesaane Bandcamp page:
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The Story of Nong Voru (Fake Love)
It’s not often that an unexpected phone call results in the recording of an album. I had been teaching and working as a musician in NYC for fifteen years, when in the spring of 2017, Alfred called me, out of the blue. On Facebook messenger. I answered, curious, to his laughing sing-song voice – and when I heard “it’s ALFRED, from GHANA!” I screamed, hysterically laughing, recognizing the voice from eleven years prior when I studied music in Ghana. Another lifetime. Suddenly amazed at the news he had moved to New York, I immediately invited him over for a jam session. Everything after became Nong Voru - translated from Dagara as ‘Fake Love’.
I met Alfred Kpebesaane in 2006, in Medie, Ghana, at the Dagara Music Center, a place where music and dance festivities occurred every Sunday night to honor a regal and stoic town chief. At the time Alfred was a main teacher of xylophone, and I was a college student studying jazz piano and vibraphone, who met Ghanaian master xylophonist Bernard Woma at an NYU masterclass organized by the musician Seth Paris. Within one hour of hearing the gyil for the first time in my life, Bernard convinced me to go to Ghana and study gyil at his school. The center was endlessly alive with dancers, musicians, students, weavers, and kente-cloth makers, in a small town with huge personality, two hours from Accra. There, I studied gyil and djembe with Alfred on long hot days, and listened to the school’s dance and music ensembles at night, while finishing my degree. During lessons, I tried repeating complex forms on xylophone verbatim while Bernard insisted I drink palm wine (alcoholic of which, unbeknownst to me, indeed did I get drunk while stumbling the patterns, which Bernard laughed and laughed at).
Over those long wonderful months from January to May 2006 came a slow breakdown of my western idea of music, time and life, many moments in which I was often windswept and confounded by the instrument, the music, the tuning, the language, the intervals, the overtones, by Bernard. But most confounding were Alfred’s lessons. I’ll never forget the day Alfred taught me a binne funeral pattern simultaneously occurring in two hands in 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures, me trying to capture it furiously in a notebook, and the trance that enraptured me by it since. Each time at the gyil, I would try to get something, then it would seemingly change, and Alfred would laugh and tell me something new or different, while I scratched my head. Before I left Ghana, on our last lesson, Alfred gave me a CD he released in Ghana in 2005, way before the internet, called Te Songtaar: The Northern Solohitter. The album is a hypnotic mental trance of a listen. Alfred is an incredibly unique artist, songwriter, and teacher. I listened to The Northern Solohitter for over a decade, shared it with gyil friends, while teaching and performing Ghanaian xylophone in groups I led in Brooklyn.
So when Alfred unexpectedly called me in New York in 2017, I immediately invited him over for a jam session at my apartment, where after a decade we talked about music, played my gyil, piano, and vibraphone in an improv duet livestreamed on Facebook, and out came all the songs he had taught me, seemingly from nowhere. Quickly we started playing at Rockwood Music Hall, The Owl Music Parlor, and Barbés. He played a beautiful solo set at LPR opening for my LARCENY Chamber Orchestra Tribute to Portishead that summer. Within two short months we jumped into the studio. We captured these songs in one live session at Acme Hall Studio, in raw trio format with drummer April Centrone, engineered by guitarist / producer Rich Bennett. As we discussed the resulting music, realizing this was gyil – not in Ghana anymore - in Brooklyn! We took the liberties that New York artists take. We added electronic overdubs in post-production. Out came my vintage Casio synth with arpeggiator and microtonal sliding capacities. My dear friend and musical hero, bassist Oren Bloedow, added specially tuned electric bass to the mix. Even more technological exploration came with the computer processing sampling of the gyil and Alfred’s voice, by electronic computer musician Michael Clemow. Soon, we decided afro-jazz-beat and avant-gyil were the ‘labels’ we felt most spoke to the music.
Taking the opportunity to explore gyil as a keyboardist and creative improviser initially brought trepidation upon return from Ghana, yet, within the melting pot of New York’s productivity quota, deserves gratitude as a rare gift not to be taken for granted. On keys, I emulated Alfred’s bell patterns and basslines as a supporting xylophonist would, after studying them on gyil for ten years before transferring them to keyboards on this album. The synth arpeggiator became a way to act the bell pattern while freeing my hands in live shows to play bass and solo on rhodes. When I transferred the music from gyil to keyboards, I felt the voicings of Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner speak to the pentatonic overtones of the gyil's non-western scale. Recording with Alfred brought home my journey with Ghanaian xylophone but also with synths, allowing me to explore my voice as a keyboardist and traveler, seeking to emulate the microtuning of the gyil with detuned Casio synth lines, translating the synths from the essential role of the support xylophonist, but on my first instrument. After a decade of missing the music and lessons I experienced in Ghana, Alfred coming to New York was like a missing piece of my heart, who I had tried to tell everyone about, finally coming to my home, and to my fingers at the piano keys.
For its technological explorations, Nong Voru represents a seminal deviation from the gyil tradition, unlikely to be met without critical reception by Alfred's contemporaries in the gyil community. For Alfred, his individual self-expression, lyrics, free flowing stream of consciousness during live talks with his audience, interpretations of traditional repertoire, have long been interpreted by some as contrarian. For the two of us, this music is built on the sacred teacher-student relationship, introduced by the internationally respected late great master xylophonist, Bernard Woma, who before his departure to the other realm, held the authority to criticize Alfred’s style in the context of tradition. Like all artists who must forage their own style within tradition, Alfred is no different. Alfred is a seeker, a risk taker, someone who pushes boundaries constantly at the risk of rejection. He is a fighter. He is a teacher. He is a survivor. I hope this collaboration elevates and promotes the gyil, the tradition, and that we might allow traditional musicians a space in our hearts to blend creativity with the changing modern consciousness and technology.
Alfred plays my gyil on Nong Voru, which I purchased from Bernard Woma in 2006 in Ghana, therefore carrying Bernard’s traditional non-western tuning. It was hand crafted by master gyil maker, Tijian Lobi (relative of the late xylophone legend, Kakraba Lobi). The scale is closest described as a microtonal G flat pentatonic into a G major scale, depending on location, frequencies and patterns. Alfred’s gyil (not on the record), by contrast, is closer to a base note of G Major scale, which is another experience to hear, especially in duet with my gyil as we did live. When Alfred reconnected with my gyil, slightly contorted after eleven winters in Brooklyn, he undeterredly tuned up my instrument and in moments we began playing. The one warped flat bass key became central to the reggae bassline riff on “The Women Are Taking Over the Men”.
Alfred Kpebesaane's xylophone playing couldn’t be more authentic as his strong voice and personality, contributing greatly to the gyil. Alfred’s often ad-libbed lyrical style is uniquely quirky as is he, flowing over his canvas of satiating complex xylophone rhythms and harmonics of an instrument that honors the deceased. ‘Gandaakpina’ – pronounced Gandayina - is a frequently played ceremonial traditional, meaning ‘the landlord has passed away,’ while ‘N Saa Kuuna Veso’ is a funeral song for orphans, for when we lose our parents.
This album breaks conventions, and is a living record of narrowing the gap of global to local human anthropology, music traditions, technology, and cultures. This is a first, and perhaps only, recorded cross collaboration of traditional Ghanaian gyil music with experimental live computer sampling and processing of the instrument, recorded with creative improvisors in Brooklyn. As we discovered the music and its possibilities behind the console, we felt a lightning bolt with the phrases ‘afro-jazz beat’ and ‘avant-gyil’.
After a long talk together on my couch about surviving as musicians in our respective music communities, Alfred and I took pause to take in each other’s experience of survival in Ghana and New York. After a pause, I asked him, ‘What should the record be called?’ Without missing a beat, he gazed at the wall, slowly breaking a smile and slowly said, “Nong Voru.” Detecting humor, I scoffed, and asked him what Nong Voru meant in Dagara. He leaned back, grinned his big toothy smile, squinted his eyes, and stated loudly and languishingly, “FAKE LOVE”. And we burst out laughing.
Alfred Kpebesaane, The Northern Solohitter album link: soundcloud.com/alfred-kpebesaane-gyil
History and Overview of the Gyil
The Gyil is a traditionally (non-western) tuned xylophone from the upper west region of Ghana, constructed of 14 smoked wooden bars, goat skin, wood, and twine, amplified by gourds with three holes covered with spider sac material to produce its rich buzzy timbre. Carrying 500 years of oral tradition, the instrument is played to honor the dead. Those who carry the tradition of Gyil music hold a high honor and oral tradition, representing the community as oral historian, ceremonial dance leader, and funeral musician. Songs, as per Dagara tradition, often fall into the ceremonies of funeral music (Binné) and social dance songs (Bewaa). The three regional groups of people with Gyil traditions in the upper west region of Ghana are the Dagara, Sissala, and Lobi. Many gyil songs are shared and altered in style by different players with various pronunciations and traditions. For example, Dagara people pronounce the genre name of gyil dance songs “bewaa,” while Lobi and Sissala peoples pronounce it ‘bawa’. Gyil music ranges from solo, duo, trio, and larger ensembles with drummers and dancers, varying in arrangements, styles, and ceremonies.
Gyil is traditionally taught sitting on small stools, student and master situated opposite the same xylophone. A xylophonist is considered to be a master to play repertoire seated on both opposite sides of the instrument. A traditional gyil ensemble consists of two gyils positioned in an L shape, one master xylophonist who leads and cues transitions, and one support xylophonist who carries supporting melodies and bell patterns. A traditional gyil trio has a percussionist seated between them, atop a cajon-like box bass drum covered with snake skin. A singing dance troupe of 4-12 people often wear percussive ankle bells, whose somatic moves correspond adding rhythmic percussion, and call and response vocal choir and ululations.
Form and Structure of Gyil Music
In Ghana, Bernard Woma, Jeroma Balsab, and Alfred Kpebesaane taught me basic forms and structures of Ghanaian xylophone, terming left-handed xylophone basslines the ‘melody’ and right-handed melodies the ‘song’ – dexterous roles for pianists more often than vibraphonists. There I learned and practiced key ostinatos, the essential form and structures AABABBAB, ABAABBAB (‘The Impossible Song’), and ABAB (‘N Saa Kunno Vesso, ‘Gandaakpina Yangmaa Domme’ and ‘Yuor Na Nume’), enough to begin supporting the master xylophone. Orally taught are the transitions layered over these patterns, triggered by master and followed by support musician, an example of would be 4:09 on the track ‘Yuor Na Nume (Sweet Problem)’. For example, the master can transition the cyclical pattern ‘AABABBAB’ quickly to ‘ABAABABB’ by cuing a changing the perception of the start point of the pattern, grouping the cycle differently by indicating a melody or bell pattern starting at a different point in the cycle. Here is an example:
aababbab aababbab aababb abaababb abaababb
The seventh letter of the third cycle is grouped into a new perception point, reordering the sequence into a new 8-bar pattern. All of this is done seamlessly without breaking the continuous melodic pattern itself, nor the bell pattern. What changes is the perception of the ‘start point’ of the cycle, referred by as ‘rotation point’ by the late great West African music scholar, William Anku.
Additionally, the Gyil has a special traditional tuning that varies by the master. My gyil, appearing on Nong Voru, is tuned to master Bernard Woma, recorded in 2006 from the highest to the lowest note:
1) C# +40 cents High
2) B +20
3) A -23
4) F# +35
5) E +15
6) D +
7) C -35
8) A +20-5
9) G -15-25
10) E +15
11) D +- 20
12) B +25
13) A +-2
14) G -40 Low (Almost Gb)
The instrument yields natural polyphonic overtones producing two-note gyil ‘chords’, which Alfred and Bernard taught me to be the meanings of as follows:
brothers = octaves, four wooden bars between notes
uncles = 5ths, two wooden bars between notes
nieces = 4ths, one wooden bar apart
friends = 3rds, two adjacent bars
Heartfelt gratitude to Rich Bennett and Acme Hall Music Studios for the best and one of a kind recording experience in this world! Thank you for all that you do, and your endless support for gyil music, musicians, and the Brooklyn community, for appreciating and fine tuning this album with utmost care, microtonality, art and love. Thanks to Olivier Conan and all of the staff at Barbés for hosting Ghanaian Gyil Gala residency in June 2018 – and very special thanks to all the Barbés staff for withstanding our gyil shenanigans. To Bernard Woma, thank you for bringing us together, for your input, for guarding the integrity of the gyil, may you always Rest in Peace and Rest in Power. To SK Kakraba, Oren Bloedow, The Owl Music Parlor, LPR, and the Dagara Music Center for all of your support and understanding. To Casey Mitchell for capturing us on photo. To Dawn Drake, Beza Gebre, Alla Faberova, Michael Eaton, Ray Belli, for making music with us. To Ben Wigler, and Jeff and Susan Chase for all your major support in the community, and to everyone on Go Fund Me who supported the making of this album – thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Finally, to our friends, family, in the US, in Ghana, and the world – and who came, played, moved, shaked, listened, drummed, and danced – all the love and peace be with you always.