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MUSIC UNDER THE TREES

From North Adams Notes, The Advocate, July 12, 2000

By Mark E. Rondeau

You might call in upbeat music under upside-down trees.

Three members of the group Mandara gave a one-hour free African drum lesson Saturday afternoon, July 8, under Tree Logic (the upside-down trees) at MASS MoCA. Held on a clear, sunny day, the event, sponsored by North Adams Tobacco Awareness, drew both young and old.

Valerie Naranjo, cofounder of Mandara, led the lesson, with the help of Barry Olsen and Rolando Morales-Matos.

Naranjo is of Native American (Ute) and Latin American heritage. She started drumming as a child and has researched and studied in seven African countries including Ghana. Her playing in this nation in 1988 led to the declaration of a chiefly decree in the Dagara nation that women be allowed to play the gyli (JEE-lee) publicly.

Naranjo has dedicated herself to exploring the relationships between indigenous music in Africa and the Americas, and she has studied with dozens of percussion masters in America and Africa.

With smiles all around, Naranjo began the lesson by leading the children and adults present in a call and response — “Saah ink ay na ja boot.”

(This is my attempt to spell these words phonetically).

“Saah ink ay na ja boot,” she called. “Saah ink ay na ja boot,” responded the children and adults.

“Let’s do it one more time and imagine — see that window over there — there’s somebody on the other side of the building, the other side of that window, and when that person hears us, he and she and the dog and the cat and the other people that are with them are going to hear us and come over,” Naranjo said. “But if they don’t hear us they’re going to miss the whole thing.”

Naranjo said the phrase means, “Your father’s house has gone to spoil.”

“When someone moves out of a house and no one else moves in...a house after a while begins to look like no one lives in it,” she said. “And that what we’re singing about — a house that has been left.”

Nancy Kelly, who is making a documentary tentatively called Art to the Rescue, and her crew filmed parts of the drum lesson.

Naranjo explained the gyli, a marimba-like instrument: “This instrument is from West Africa,” she said. It is made from a gourd similar to squash, but inedible because of its bitter taste. “What you can do is let the gourds dry and use them so that the tones of the gyli will be made louder.”

The three musicians gave the children — and adults — in the audience several opportunities to play the percussive instruments, and they did so with great pleasure.

Morales-Matos seemed to have a charismatic presence and a real rapport with the children and adults present.

Asked if he enjoyed the one-hour session with the children, Morales-Matos said, “Definitely, I like to play with kids because they’re really responsive.”

“This is beautiful,” he said, noting that it gave the children the opportunity to play African Drums and different instruments.

What did he think of the upside-down trees?

“I think it’s great. It’s actually very shocking to see these,” he said. “Very interesting.”

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Above: the gathering under the Upside-Down Trees. Top: Valerie Naranjo and Rolando Morales-Matos get young people involved in the music. Photos: Mark Rondeau, 2000.

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