SK Kakraba is a virtuoso of the gyil, a master player and maker of this traditional xylophone that is the national instrument of the people of northern Ghana. Having been born into a family of gyil players, in an area of Ghana that is known for its many great musicians, SK formed a bond with the instrument at an early age. As a young boy, SK would often grab gyil beaters and try to copy the performances he was hearing. Under the traditional guidance of his family, SK developed his mastery of the instrument, as well as his knowledge of its rich musical repertoire.
SK’s late uncle, Kakraba Lobi, was one of the first gyil players to tour, lecture and record internationally. In 1997, Lobi arranged a position for SK as a performer and instructor with the International Center for African Music and Dance at the University of Ghana, working under the renowned musicologist and composer J.H. Kwabena Nketia. With his work at the university and his contributions towards building a resurgent interest in traditional music in the local scene, SK’s reputation as an artist began to grow.With a desire to share his culture, SK began touring internationally.
Since 2000, SK has performed at numerous concerts and festivals across Africa, Europe and North America. He has shared bills with legendary musicians Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, U-Roy, Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids; and with many other notable bands, including: Son Lux, Allah-Las and Black Midi.
As a solo artist, SK has released four albums: “Gandayina: Xylophone Music of Ghana” (Pentatonic Press, 2002), “Kanbile: Solo And Ensemble Xylophone Music Of Ghana” (Pentatonic Press, 2014), “Yonye” (Sun Ark Records/Drag City, 2015), and “Songs Of Paapieye” (Awesome Tapes From Africa, 2015). Critics and fans alike have hailed SK’s releases and performances. In reviewing his song “Guun” from Songs of Paapieye, Pitchfork stated “Kakraba’s polyrhythms are genius… There’s a fluidity and flexibility of gesture here that’s reminiscent of jazz, too, even though the gyil far predates that.” The New York Times called his playing “…propulsive but never predictable.” The LA Weekly profiled SK as “The man who might be the world’s greatest xylophone player…” and described his music “…as hypnotic and otherworldly as you might expect — unfamiliar music, to Western ears, at its very best.”
In 2012, SK moved to Los Angeles, and began to connect with local musicians to create new blends of traditional and modern music. The resulting collaborations have included performances and releases with artists working in a variety of genres, ranging from the experimental jazz of Dave Rempis, and Tim Daisy and Tony Buck (The Necks); the “space music” of Carlos Niño & Friends; and the synth pop of Empire of the Sun. In 2018, SK served as a teacher of ethnology and session instructor at the California Institute of the Arts. SK also continues to pass along his knowledge and love of the gyil by performing in schools, giving workshops to American music teachers and teaching seminars. SK’s upcoming projects include working with music educator Doug Goodkin, on a book about gyil music adaptable to Orff instruments.
About the Gyil
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.
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.