by Len Lear
When I was a teenager, I’d turn on the radio and hear one great jazz singer after another — Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Julie London, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, et al. Those were the halcyon days for legendary female jazz interpreters. It was an embarrassment of riches. One would be hard pressed to compile such a list today, but one West Mt. Airy songbird who just might fill the bill is Elle Gyandoh, who was recently added to the staff of the Chestnut Hill Music Academy, which holds its classes at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
And a church is the right venue for Gyandoh because her sound is ethereal. In addition, her range, subtle phrasing, rhythmic intensity, smooth melodic line, stress on the off-beats, et al, make for the complete package.
According to one reviewer, “Elle creates a blissful marriage of prose and melody that embraces your heart and feeds your soul. Her debut CD, ‘Once Upon a Time,’ has won her fans all over the world. She digs even deeper into her blues and jazzinspired roots to bring a soulful and intimate vibe to her upcoming new album. Elle has also been featured in Montgomery County Town and Country Living Magazine as the Philadelphia area’s next rising star.”
It would not surprise me at all if she eventually did become a household name. Gyandoh, who is mid-30s, was just a toddler when her family came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s from Ghana in West Africa. Her father, an attorney and law professor, was offered a position as a visiting professor at Temple Law School on an exchange program. The whole family soon followed.
“I think most of my memories of when I lived in Ghana are from stories told to me by my parents and brothers,” Gyandoh told us last week. “However, I do visit Ghana with my family fairly often, and I always enjoy my stay. Things are not as fast-paced in Ghana as they are in the U.S., which I actually enjoy.” (Elle’s father is a professor emeritus at Temple University, and her mother is an imaging analyst. They live in Elkins Park.)
Gyandoh attended Cheltenham High School, Temple University and Eastern University Graduate School. She started out singing at open mic nights, sometimes waiting for hours to sing just one song.
But this led to opportunities to sing at local coffee shops, then restaurants and then private engagements, etc.
“All these ventures allowed me to network and eventually led me to bigger opportunities and to recruit and form my own band.”
Gyandoh was influenced and inspired by a cornucopia of great singers, such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Nat King Cole, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Adele, Otis Redding, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera and many others. Unlike so many other great singers who sing The Great American Songbook, however, she writes all of her own music.
In recent years, Gyandoh has performed at Bally’s Atlantic City, Dilworth Park in Center City, Warmdaddy’s, Relish, the Philadelphia Art Museum, Doylestown Arts Festival, Haverford Music Festival and Juneteenth Festival in Mt. Airy, just to name a few. She calls herself “a soul singer with jazz and other influences.” Her band is called The John Doe Band.
Gyandoh’s first record, “Once Upon a Time,” an EP with five songs, came out in 2008. All 1,000 copies pressed were sold online, “in the streets,” at her live shows, networking events, etc. Her first full-length CD, “Through the Looking Glass,” has 11 songs on it. Social media have also helped people discover her music online and become fans.
What is the best advice Gyandoh ever received?
“My parents always taught me to honor my commitments. Another good piece of advice from my mom is to be very careful of my words to others because once spoken, you can never take them back. I always remember that, especially when faced with frustrating situations.”
If Gyandoh could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, who would it be?
“It would have to be one of the world’s oldest people. There are a few verified to be over 110 years old. I love history and would love to hear about it firsthand from someone who has seen and lived it!”
When asked about her family, Gyandoh said, “I would like to mention my whole family, as they have continued to support me in my music career and all of my endeavors. My mom and dad, Sam and Louisa, and my three brothers and three sisters-in-law, Mark & Ariel, Jude and Diana, and Bert and Mimi. Also, all of my nieces and nephews and extended family!”