Sk Kakraba was born in Saru, a small farming community in the northern region of Ghana, an area known for its many great xylophone players. He undertook traditional training in xylophone from a young age. 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, one of the first gyil players to tour, lecture and record internationally. 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 at the International Center for African Music at the University of Ghana. 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. I made a living that way.” In the year 2000-2001, SK began touring internationally to share his culture, performing in Jordan, Switzerland, and seven African countries. In 2002, he released his first recording Gandayina: Xylophone Music of Ghana (Pentatonic Press). In 2012 SK relocated to Los Angeles and began working with local musicians to create a new blend of traditional and modern music. He also began performing for children in schools and giving workshops to American music teachers. He is currently working on a book with Doug Goodkin of 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.