SK KAKRABA: MASTER GYIL PLAYER
The gyil is the national instrument of Northern Ghana and the Lobi people. Nearly every person in the community can play at least a tune or two on the gyil. Yet the gyil master — an instrument maker as well as a player — studies the instrument for much of his life before he is considered worthy to represent his community at sacred events.
The gyil is used for everything in life, from weddings and funerals to dances and everyday recreation. However, it serves an especially crucial role in Lobi funeral rituals. In the lobi, or specifically the Brifor, tradition there are two types of gyils, the borgyil (festival xylophone) and the Kogyil (pronounce Ko-jee-lee) the funeral xylophone. According to SK, "When we are growing up, we learn those songs to perform at funerals. There are always xylophone players in the villages. You could learn from your grandfather, uncle or father.” Lobi funeral rites are multi-day celebrations that are long and complicated and hinge around the gyil. Without gyil players, there can’t be a funeral.
The gyil has a vast repertoire of solo and chamber music which is typically passed down from generation to generation. Additionally, the gyil tradition has set tunes for improvised melodies. Even youngsters who play the instrument are expected to remember complex pieces and improvise according to dance movements and singer as directive.
According to Lobi myth, "the instrument was discovered in ancient times by a hunter who went into the forest to hunt for an antelope. When he found the antelope, it was playing the gyil. He didn’t know what it was, and he tried to shoot the antelope. The antelope was praying for his life and promised to give him the instrument if he didn’t shoot him. That was how it was discovered.”
The gyil is a Ghanaian xylophone made of 14 wooden slats strung across calabash gourd resonators. The buzzy rattle emitted with each note comes from the silk walls of spiders’ egg sacs stretched across holes in the gourds, called paapieye in Lobi language. The gyil’s earthy sound can be heard in parts of Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana, as well as Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and beyond, where it goes by other names.
Its tones follow a pentatonic scale (a 5-tone scale, found all over the world in differing formats). But the interaction between left and right hands on different parts of the keyboard — low tones and high tones—creates a sense of harmonic depth. It is usually played in pairs, accompanied by a calabash gourd drum called a kuor. It can also be played by one person with the drum and the stick part as accompaniment, or by a soloist.