SK Kakraba is master of the gyil, 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.
The characteristic buzzing timbre might sound odd to foreign ears. But this distortion is just one of the beautifying sensibilities crucial to SK’s gyil music, which he learned as a child from elders in his Lobi community in the far northwest reaches of Ghana. It’s the national instrument of the Lobi people.
His uncle Kakraba Lobi—heretofore described as his father in biographies but technically SK’s uncle—is the recognized master of the gyil, having performed, recorded and taught worldwide as a Lobi musical ambassador. Lobi’s renown in ethnomusicology circles cannot be understated and his contribution to J.H. Kwabena Nketia’s legendary Institute of African Studies at University of Ghana, Legon is immeasurable. Lobi passed away in 2007 and his “son” SK has been carrying the torch ever since.
SK learned traditional music in Saru, a small farming community in Northern Region, Ghana. When he was very young he was always listening to xylophonists play and he would grab the beaters and start to learn what he heard them play, especially when his family members were performing. When SK played something incorrectly, he was shown the right way. Most of his family are also gyil players, in addition to his uncle Kakraba Lobi. Over time, he learned a large repertoire and became a working master of the instrument. He kept learning until Lobi brought SK to Accra to work as a performer and instructor.
As SK puts it, “When I moved to Accra in 1997, I was around 20, I had to make money for myself so I strapped on my xylophone and carried it around Central Accra or the zongos (Muslim ghettoes) and markets and people would throw money on the instrument. This helped me get my daily chop.”
SK made his name with Hewale Sounds and other local neo-traditional artists, who have generated a burgeoning resurgence of interest in Ghanaian cultural music over the past decade. From Accra, Ghana’s coastal capital, well over a day’s drive from Lobi country up north, SK established himself among the elite of the current generation of musicians playing “culture music.” He taught at the university’s International Centre for African Music and Dance and has worked all over the world as a performer, lecturer and gyil instructor to international students.
This recording highlights SK’s voice as a solo musician. Everyone who has heard him play over the years knows this voice. It felt time to share this with a broader audience and it is our hope that SK’s network of friends around the world will help create a groundswell of larger support for his music.
Although the gyil is sometimes played in pairs and with drum and bell, SK lives in Los Angeles these days and plays alone quite often. Songs of Paapieye surveys a deliberate snapshot of SK’s hereditary Lobi repertoire heard through the lens of a stripped-down, and sometimes spare-sounding, solo gyil. The album focuses on a selection of SK’s favorite song cycles, funeral dirges, improvised interpretations on traditional songs and original compositions—and combinations thereof.
The sounds of SK’s hometown unfold in astounding bursts during his solo performances, which vacillate between stark, free-rhythm woody sonics and chaotic, breakneck solos backed by left-hand rumbling bass tones.
The gyil is used for everything in life, from weddings and funerals to dances and everyday recreation. 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.
Gyil players perform multiple voices at the same time, communicating myriad layers of rhythm and harmony concurrently. There’s a fluidity in the way a gyil player will perform the themes, phrases and improvisational modes. As the performance progresses several marker phrases are played that signal new sections and movements of the larger pieces. All players need to learn these as they grow up around the music. Among the player’s toolbox of repeated phrases and call-and-response patterns, slight rhythmic or melodic liberties can be taken, enhancing interest and tension and beauty in the music. Depending on who plays the song, the arrangement will be unique.
Gyil players can also speak with their instrument. Certain phrases or motifs can illustrate emotions or direct dancers. With his two hands, SK certainly converses. One hand often speaks completely independently from the other. The cross-rhythmic variations are infinite meanwhile the colliding overtones from the instrument’s keys create even more percussive interplay.
The gyil’s 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. SK’s playing suggests more going on than simply one instrumental voice playing a relatively simple scale. This recording was done without overdubs, however. Part of SK’s harmonic genius is his ability to compose and improvise phrases that interact to create a broad, rich sound. This works in tandem with larger cyclical rhythms that twist and turn on each other. SK’s performances reach sublime heights, revealing new elements over repeated listens.
I’ve known SK since 2002, when I heard him as a member of the influential ensemble Hewale Sounds. We stayed in touch over the years and now we hang out in Los Angeles and discuss music on a fairly regular basis. It only occurred to me recently that Awesome Tapes From Africa would be a solid platform to bring his music to more ears. I’ve been inspired by the incredibly attentive and appreciative audiences SK has found in L.A. via his many performances over the last couple years. Although this is a first for ATFA—releasing a new recording rather than a reissuing a locally-released cassette—SK and I have gone into this head first.
1. Lubile Prai—The bird cry song. A man named Eivuur, who was a very famous xylophonist among the Lobi, heard a bird cry everyday and he said, “This bird always comes to my house and cries like this, so I am going to make a song out of it.” And he did. He used the bird song for inspiration to compose new music. Although Lubile Yiel translates as bird song but Lubile Prai is the original name, because a prai is a sort of warm-up. It is played during a funeral and involves no dancing, as it is arhythmic, and is more about telling a story.
2. Banyere Yo—This is a song advising a blind person who went out drinking pito and found himself drunk and unable to find his way home. Pito is a traditional alcoholic drink made of guinea corn. Banyere Yo is humorous and teaches a lesson. It is played in a celebration or festival, wedding or outdooring. It is used for ceremonial purposes or drunk on the weekend. The walking cane can direct the blind person to the pito bar but once he/she is drunk, it becomes a different story. Historically, it sort of teases blind people but SK doesn’t mean it that way.
3. Darifu—The first song played during a funeral, for a grown or elderly man who has been to war or a brave fighter. It is performed after certain rituals are completed. It is a powerful piece because it makes people feel emotional. The first time SK played this he was a child, about 10 years old. But you can be 5 years old and play Darifu. One of the main themes of Darifu is one of the first things you learn in Lobi community. If you can perform it well people will know that you can play in the future.
4. Darikpon Variations—This is SK’s version of a type of music played at a funeral for a man. It is played to praise the deceased. Any male who dies among the Lobi receives a performance of Darikpon (the females have their own song called Porkorbor). When someone is near passing away, you begin to hear women mourning. Once you hear a man mourning then you know the person has passed away. Then you hear the xylophone come in, beginning with a warm-up piece called the prai, of which there are different kinds, depending on who passed away. When all the introduction parts are completed, the performer will call the drummer using the xylophone, then the bell player comes. These three will start Darikpon. Here the title Darikpon Variations indicates it is not the entire cycle of songs; SK performs an excerpt. The full cycle can take more than an hour and always involves dancing on the part of participants and attendees.
5. Sokpa—This song is played as a kind of “happy hour” music. It is often heard at a gathering of people in order to “please your soul,” as SK puts it. It is music to be enjoyed while hanging out, as in a pito bar or other casual gathering. No one taught Sokpa to SK, he just grew up hearing it from the elder players, which is how all xylophone learning really happens. Elders will correct you if you play it wrong.
6. Guun—This is the last song played at a funeral, after all the others have been done. It is meant to get all the dancers on their feet and into a dancing mood. The focus is on women and how they run around the gyil players and off into the surrounding area. It is the hottest, most intense part for the performance, where the player is expressing himself as a xylophonist. Guun is rapid-fire music, and it signals the end of the performance for that particular player. Other players will come and perform as well, from the beginning. And the more people dance, the more the deceased will rest happily.
released October 2, 2015
Thanks: Brian Hogan (great friend and brother), SK Kakraba Band, SK’s late uncle Kakraba Lobi, Mark “Frosty” McNeill, Molly Keogh and family (for taking SK as their son), Evan Conway, Jessica Thompson (mastering), Christopher Welz (distribution) and Riley Manion (design) and Eden Batki (photos).
SK Kakraba plays the gyil, a wooden xylophone from northern Ghana. He is one of he world's best known masters of the instrument which he has learned since early childhood. This release is the first "new" recording for Awesome Tapes From Africa.