Philadelphia is a long way from Ghana, and certainly not the first place you’d look for an artist whose specialty is the gyil—pronounced jeel—an acoustic, wooden mallet instrument in the xylophone family that originated in the West African tri-border region of Ghana, Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire.
But Philadelphia is where Gina Ferrera currently resides and where she recorded her latest album, appropriately titled Gina Ferrera & The Philadelphia Gyil Fusion Project. Breathtaking in its sonic range and richly evocative in content, the recording seamlessly bridges the ancient and the contemporary, unfolding a world of contrasts and textures that reveals multiple new layers with each listening.
Just how did an Italian-American woman originally from New Jersey find her way to this relatively obscure instrument, even spending considerable time in Africa studying with the masters? The story begins at age 10. Gina’s mother, a hard-working Italian immigrant, inspired her daughter’s enthusiasm for culture, while her father, who passed away when Gina was 17, guided her toward drumming.
When she was 20, Ferrera’s seeking spirit led her to the gyil via Valerie Naranjo, a master percussionist. Naranjo mentored Ferrera for many years, during which time Gina immersed herself in the instrument’s cultural significance as well as its artistic properties. She traveled to Ghana for the first of two times, where she studied with gyil masters Kakraba Lobi and Bernard Woma. Ferrera has also absorbed the music of Cuba, Nigeria, Brazil and Zimbabwe, and her other instruments include bata drums, drum-set, shekere, conga, Ewe drums and Shona Dzavadzimu mbira.
In 2006, Ferrera relocated to Philadelphia to avail herself of the city’s bustling underground world music community. The Philadelphia Gyil Fusion Project came about organically. The 10 songs collected on the album are markedly diverse. Each is a sonic journey, replete with personal and spiritual meanings, specific themes, hidden sound textures, and laced with experimental recording effects and downbeat tempos. Ferrera also draws from the visual arts to create sonic landscapes, from color, textures, qualities of spice and flavors in sound.
Several songs on the album are inspired by traditional music, with lyrics and vocals provided by Ferrera, then transposed into modernity with the use of today’s state-of-the-art recording tools. In addition to Ferrera’s own vocals, a number of guest singers and musicians are featured on the album. A Gina Ferrera gig might include the artist performing solo or accompanied by experimental players, percussionists and vocalists, using live electronics and effects or a full band consisting of drums, guitars, bass, horns and a battery of percussion.
Gina Ferrera & the Philadelphia Gyil Fusion Project is a stimulating experience that crosses the spiritual with the sensual and the pure essence of sound. It’s at once a highly intimate statement yet one that crashes through boundaries and speaks to everyone whose path it crosses.
“Each song on this album is like its own creature that I helped transfer from another dimension to an audio dimension,” says Ferrera. “I hope that it speaks for itself.” It not only speaks for itself—it speaks for and to an entire planet, and for the eons.
- Jeff Tamarkin (former editor of Jazz Times and Global Rhythm)
Video Link - vimeo.com/16200779
released 25 January 2010