About Lobi Music
West African people have been grooving to the sound of keyboards and percussion
for centuries. Theyve been praying, cooking, plowing the fields,
building houses, burying the deceased, and healing physical and emotional
illnesses as well.
of the worlds
pop musics (Brazilian, Latin , rock, funk, bebop) have looked to African
traditional musics for their driving force and breath: the rhythm.
It only takes a second or two to recognize traditional African music
and the spirit that it carries. Alive with movement, vibrant with ever
The scope of this
music is vast. When one travels beyond the well known coastal regions,
one finds literally hundreds and hundreds of styles and combinations of
voices, instruments, and movement.
of the most captivating is West Africas chamber music, in which one or two musicians exhibit
the skill to enact the same movement and dialogue that can occure within
an ensemble of dozens. West Africas soloists and chamber musicians
hold a respectworthy post in their rural villages (where they are most
likely to be found). It is well recognized that their extraordinary abilities
take many years to attain and their role as the gate to both the spirit
world in the sacred ceremony and the world of joy and laughter in a simple
moonlight dance is important in maintaining the health of each individual
and the bonding of the community.
About the Instruments
GYIL (pronounced JEEL or JEE lee), is one of those chamber
instruments. It is the national instrument of the Dagara, Lobi and
other nations of Ghana, Burkina Faso and Cote DIvoire. It is one of the grandmothers
of the mallet keyboard family and is made from fourteen wooden slats that
are suspended on a frame, over calabash gourds. Each gourd has one to
several holes that support a mirlitron of spiders film which allows
each bar to produce a column of buzzing air. The gyil sounds to the ear
as a kaleidoscope looks to the eye: a dazzling matrix of consistent yet
ever-changing interlocking elements engaged in dynamic conversation. It
is curious to find that such a powerful sound can be so soothing and healing.
Throughout West Africa, people believe that any marimbas woody
sound comes from a vibration of water that physically balances the water
in the bodies of people and animals.
gyil is used for everything in Lobi and Dagara life, from weddings
and funerals to moonlight dances and everyday recreation. Nearly
every man in the community can play at least a tune or two. Yet the
gyil master (an instrument maker as well as player) studies the instrument
for much of his life before he is considered worthy to represent
the community at sacred events. In that capacity he is, much like
a doctor, on call to heal emotional or physical illnesses, and like
an academic advisor, always available to coach and evaluate young
musicians. The gyil master is especially important as the initiator
of the funeral, the Lobi and Dagaras most important
rite of passage.
with two wooden/rubber beaters, the gyil is played alone, or in ensemble
with a second gyil and/or drummers, singers, and dancers. Like its
antecedent the western marimba, the gyil has a vast repertoire, passed
from father to son for centuries. The gyil tradition has set the tone for
the melody/improv/melody form common in jazz. Even youngsters who play
gyil are expected to remember complex pieces and improvise according
to dance movements and singer directives.
The Kankarama is a mouth bow. The left hand holds the instrument to the
mouth and changes the pitch of the bark string. The right hand holds a
stick which strikes the other end of the string. The player changes the
timbre of the instrument by changing the shape of his mouth.
The kokolele is a simple 8 bar xylophone without resonators that is played
by striking the end of the bars with a pair of wooden sticks. Often children
on the farm play this instrument out in the fields to keep monkeys and
other animals away from the precious crops. This song says, People,
God has the power to do anything.
Lon, sometimes called talking drum, is a double conical
drum with two skins fastened on either end with rawhide strips that connect
the skins directly to one another. The player places the middle of the
drum under one arm which squeezes the rawhide strips to change the pitch
of the drum while the other hand strikes the drum with a curved stick.
Two lon are played here.
brekete in the south of Ghana, is a cylindrical drum with two heads that
do not readily change pitch. Attached to each head is a short rawhide
snare that gives the instrument its characteristic buzzy sound. This performance
is in two sections, the first, Ganga Bele, is from the area close to the
town Wa. The second, Damba Gakai Bambaya, is from Tamale.
In Ghana KAKRABA LOBI is considered to be the gyils spokesperson
by virtue of being one of the only living virtuosi to have mastered the
instruments vast and difficult repertoire, and to have gained international
acclaim as a concert soloist.
He was born in Kalba
Saru in the Lobi and Brifo area of Upper west Ghana in 1939. His father
is a farmer who was also highly skilled in the art of making and playing
Gyil, like his father before him. His brothers, too, make and play gyil.
As a child, Kakraba watched and listened intently, and thus became involved
in the family tradition.
he was old enough, Kakraba traveled south to the city of Accra where
he was invited by many people to perform. He gave broadcasts for
radio Ghana, and in 1957 Professor J. H. Nketia offered him a teaching
post in the Institute of African Studies. From 1962 until 1987 Kakraba
was a full-time member, and is presently an advising member of the
staff at the Institute. He guest lectures at universities in Germany,
Japan, Scandinavia, and the United States, and has performed throughout
North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. His particular approach to
composing and improvising has been studied by percussionists and
ethnomusicologists from around the world. He is a musical living
legend, considered in his homeland to be the worlds gyil spokesperson.
KAKRABA THE SOLOIST
The first time I dropped a needle on the LP entitled Kakraba Lobi, Xylophone
Player from Ghana something in me said, Thats it! Thats
what a mallet percussion instrument is really supposed to sound like!
Many years, several
teachers and hundreds of performances later, Kakraba is still in most
opinions the gyil master who makes a mallet instrument sound the way that
it is supposed to sound.
Valerie Naranjo is of Native American (Ute) and Latin American heritage.
She started playing percussion as a child and traveled with her family
throughout North and Central America exploring the music of other Native
American peoples. She journeyed to West Africa after she learned of the
existence of polyphonic marimba music there.
first performed in Ghanas Kobine Festival of Traditional Music in 1988, after the
chief of the festivals host community decreed that women be allowed
(for the first time) to play gyil publicly. In 1996 she and Barry took
a first place award in Kobine, becoming the only non-Ghanaians to date
to do so. Valerie has also researched and studied in Botswana, Burkina
Faso, Morocco, Egypt, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and lived in Johannesburg,
South Africa, where in 1994 she opened with Thuli Dumakude Johannesburgs
Civic Theatre to its first post-apartheid audiences in the production
co-directs the multi-instrumental/vocal quartet MANDARA and has given
performances on gyil, marimba, djembe and other percussion instruments
on six continents. She arranged the percussion books for the Broadway
hit THE LION KING and currently performs in THE LION KING and NBCs
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE BAND. She has arranged performed and recorded
with Philip Glass, David Byrne, Tori Amos, Hugh Masekela, and the
international percussion MEGADRUMS with Airto Moreira, Zakir Hussein
and Glen Velez. She is endorsed by LP Music Group and Vic Firth,
Barry Olsen, trombonist, pianist, percussionist and composer, is a native
New Yorker who began earning a living playing Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian
music early in life. He has recorded, arranged for and performed with
literally hundreds of artists, including such greats as Tito Puente, Ray
Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Hector Lavoe, Paul Simon, David Byrne, Airto
Moreira and Marc Anthony.
lived and worked in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1994 and has since
toured the United States, South Africa and England with The New Notes Jazz Tour
with British and South African jazz musicians. He garnered a first place
award (with Valerie) in Ghanas Kobine Festival of Traditional Music
playing on kuar (hand drum) the traditional music of the Lobi and Dagara
About some of the
Two things impress me about Kakraba. He is strong and expressive, whether
counseling his children, giving a lecture at the University of Ghana,
or chatting with friends. He is and has always been a champion of change
and advancement. He left his own village as a young teenager in order to
acquaint himself with other ways of doing things. He tried
many trades - weaving, fishing, driving a cab. He suffered and was rejected.
He doubted, reconsidered and tried again. When, at the age of seventeen,
he found his true mission - playing the gyil - the sun rose in his life.
last time that I visited Kakraba in his hometown, Accra, he was championing
the cause of womens rights. In Ghana the women are not given enough
rights and responsibilities, he says, referring to the traditional
roles of women. My own wife Vida handles the bank account, makes
family decisions, and even translates for me.
and I were busy. We went to the USIS (United States Information Service),
all around the neighborhood, to the University of Ghana, and to do
a television spot for CNN to talk about the idea that women are capable
of doing many things, including playing the gyil (traditionally a
wonder that, when Kakraba learned about the then continuing plight
of Nelson Mandela in South Africa (in 1987), he wrote a beautiful
and spirited song saying, Mandela should be free. The
song has at its center Barry playing a sonorous old stool that he had
been sitting on. Kakraba is playing one of his favorite gyils and I
am on one of my favorite djembes. Kakraba has long been making non-traditional
collaborations including the gyil, most notably with master hand drummer
Mustapha-Tetty Addy on apentima and other hand drums.
Pire and Darkpe
people, like many others, believe that birth and death are but significant
occasions in ones eternal life. Therefore, the funeral is one of
the Lobis most important rites of passage. The funeral ceremony
of a common person lasts about three days, that of an important elder,
a week or so. A chiefs funeral can last a month or longer, with
the musicians continuously taking shifts, and the mourners
returning home to rest, eat, and make a living.
funeral would not exist without the gyil, which not only announces
the death of a person, but provides with its sound vibration the
medium for the spirit of the deceased to pass from this world to
the next. Traditionally all gyil music is played, sung, danced, and
listened to for extended periods, often without a break, so that
one musician will step in behind and take over from another while
allowing the music to continue uninterrupted. Several songs are played
one after another in song cycles keeping
a consistent rhythm so that the dancing can continue for hours.
PIRE (KAKRABA SOLO)
Sometimes called warming the xylophone, pire is the most important
music and the first to be heard. Pire announces to the community for whom
the musician has been summoned to play. It identifies the lineage of the
musician himself (when I hear pire, I can identify the player and his
teacher). Gyils unlike Western instruments do not employ a fixed
pitch, so pire allows the musician to literally warm up to the
pitch center and tonality of the instrument in front of him, as he is
often called upon to play instruments other than his own.
This piece, recorded live with no overdubs, shows Kakrabas mastery
of independence between right and left hands, his subtlety, and large
range of dynamics and expression. The sound of his voice is intentional.
You got to use the mouth, he says for the song to be
PO MA TE MA KAPOUNA
This piece talks about the fact that when cultures collide it is more
than each nations political structure that is affected. Nor does
it imply superficial changes in dress and eating habits. Often family
practices and even individual ways of seeing things need to be re-evaluated.
PO BENG BE KALBADA
(There are plenty of women at Kalbada Market)
In the rural villages, markets occur once every six days, with a core
group of merchants traveling a circuit of six communities. Market days
are special. Normally sleepy little villages transform as locals take
the opportunity to sell their food, clothing and craft, musicians play
at the market site to stir excitement and earn a little spare change,
and generally everyone leaves home at least for a few minutes to check
The Kakarama is a 20 to 30 inch mouth bow that is probably a predecessor
of the jaw harp and the berimbeau. It is delicate, subtle, and difficult
to play. When I first went to study the instrument the everyday sounds
of the children playing and the young girls washing clothes completely
drowned out the instruments.
Kakarama was never
meant to be a complicated solo instrument, rather a way for bachelors
to lull themselves to sleep while their married friends were retiring
with their wives.
KPANG KPAN KPULO
(kankarama song for duo)
A man without fingers is telling me that he is going to beat me. Now just
how do you suppose that he is going to do that?
BAGBINE SONG CYCLE
Bagbine (pronounced BOG bee nay) is music for fun. Any kind of dancing
is considered fun.
is a work song. Songs that drive the work of any group of people transform
manual work, the primary means of building in the village and on the farm.
thought little of roof building until I was invited to repair the
roof of my teacher Baarus
house in Lawra one morning. Pounding mud onto an adobe roof under a scorching
sun became, after a few minutes, almost unbearable. When I began to
sing the work song that the other women were singing, the work became
a strenuous game.
Normally the young
men in the village are able to spend many years deeply involved in the
building of their communities house by house and barn by barn.
you were a young man considering marriage, you would arrange a meeting
so that your brides
father could decide the dowry that you, the prospective son-in-law, must
pay. If you were from a family of means, then you and your father would
agree upon an amount of currency, bulk of goods, or number of heads of
livestock. For most sons, however, your father-in-law decides how big
of a building project you must complete. Regardless of how small a building
he may have in mind, you cannot build it alone and so, you rally your
friends for aid, promising them that when THEY wish to marry you will
be at their disposal to help them pay their dowry.
The rhythm of Tinsor
nibe tracks (follows) the movement of the man on the ground who picks
up a bundle of reeds and throws it in the air toward another man standing
on the roof who, on the next beat, catches the reeds and throws them onto
the appropriate place on the rooftop.
The next song in the cycle Ghana Poble is an open complaint: Ghana Poble,
vyele vyele Ghanaian girls, they talk too much. This refers to
the practice that young girls have of testing their suitors devotion
by sending their closest friends to tempt the suitor.
The next song: Bin
gede wuo, wala wara daa bin gede wuo ken nguro apatashi Blind
man, dont go drinking apatashi (an especially strong distilled liquor).
The final piece: Nyen yele Naamwin sosi We are all under God.
The Wala and Mamprusi are neighboring nations to the Lobi who emigrated
to the Upper West of Ghana from Nigeria. They brought with them two types
of drums which are played in ensemble.
THE DARKPE SONG
Ganda Yina is one of the first songs that I heard on the gyil. It is
a funeral song that says, the breadwinner is away (a family
has lost its husband or father). Kakraba has arranged this simple tune
into an elegant movement. It is usually the first piece that we play
to begin a duo or trio program.
The last time Kakraba
and I played this song in its traditional setting was for the funeral
of the paramount chief of the Lobi people living in the greater Accra
area. When we arrived a human corridor opened to make way for the master
of masters (Kakraba) of Lobi funeral music. As we took our places we were
surrounded by a ganga player (the traditional accompaniment to the funeral
gyil) and a crowd of the funeral party.
listened intently to pire. Old men nodded and young women stilled
their playing children in respect to the music. As soon as the first
phrase of Ganda Yina came out of the instruments the atmosphere struck lightning;
I couldnt believe how loud everything was! The ganga man was playing
as loud as a human being could possibly play, if only to match the power
and grace of the dancing.
second song has two different sets of lyrics with different meanings,
which is common among peoples who share the same musical heritage
who speak mutually unintelligible languages. One version, Kukur Ganda,
refers to the breadwinners
hoe blade that stays busy throughout the growing season to feed the family.
This accentuates the grief of the deceaseds family, who have lost
their breadwinner. The other version, Long Kpen Domo (Your Enemy Among
You), says: You dont realize that the person living in your
own house is your enemy until something unfortunate happens to you and
you find him/her unwilling to come to your aid.
BIK PIBE DOYE
(That Orphan is Suffering) - kakarama solo1
A father and mother die and leave their child on his own in the road.
When the rain comes and beats down upon him, he cries for his suffering
because he has no one to turn to for help. Death is not good for young
JON PLEK PLE
Kakraba has produced a brilliant arrangement of a simple and very old
traditional song that carries a powerful lesson: Here a blind man
is busy trying to tell me how much he has seen, yet since he is not able
to see as I can, what can he possibly tell me?
Perhaps I was a blind
person when I first heard Kakraba playing this song during a recent residency
at Cal Arts. I fell in love with the piece and asked Kakraba if I could
learn it from him. At first he ignored me, but after two days of my insistence,
he muttered something about the song not being very good for me and reluctantly
began to teach me.
night I began to practice Jon Plek in earnest I fell ill just a little fever.
I attributed it to the exhaustion of an intense study/rehearsal schedule
(I had flown from New York to spend a few days). I continued to practice
Jon Plek. To my delight the piece was coming along so was my strange
night I was to fly back to New York I could hardly walk. Mrs. Ladzepo,
hostess, had a look at me and said malaria (yes Id
had it before). But later my husband caught my illness (malaria is not
contagious). I remembered what Kakraba had said about Jon Plek and made
special prayers to the men and women who had in the distant past been
part of this song, asking their approval that I be part of it also, assuring
that I would play Jon Plek in their honor and for worthy causes. Both
of us recovered quickly
The second song in
this cycle is a dirge that ends many funeral cycles.
Sa Yina Echa Da Kpulo (Your fathers house has gone to
NAMWIN YELLE NIBE
This like many pieces is based on a parable:
If a person becomes jealous of you and begins to treat you like
an enemy, you should stay clear of him rather than trying to prove yourself
or taking vengeance for any misconduct on his part. Let God judge that person
and take care of the matter. Be assured that God will never allow anyone to keep
what they have stolen from someone else.
Kakrabas journeys throughout the world have inspired many of his
compositions. The presence of the beautiful Catholic cathedral in Cologne,
Germany inspired the following piece.
A BI WONI BANA
This like many pieces is based on a parable: Take care to share
your treasures equally within your family and to treat each member of
your family with equal care, consideration, and respect. Do not give
in to the tendency to chose favorites in your family.