Traditional West African percussion music is a vibrant world, a kaleidoscope of ever changing innovation and re-creation. Occasionally someone comes along who single-handedly bears a major influence on that community, whos efforts pave the way for a style, an instrument, or a manner of expression. Outstanding examples of such artists in the West are Leigh Howard Stevens and Gordon Stout on classical marimba; Adama Drame on solo djembe; and Giovanni Hidalgo on congas.
Kakraba Lobi is considered to be the one of the great traditional African musicians of all time. In Ghana where he lived and died, he is considered a musical legend and the international spokesperson of the West African marimba called gyil (pronounced JEEL or JEE-lee), by virtue of being the first virtuoso to have both mastered this instrument’s vast and difficult repertoire, and to take it from its village folk tradition to the international concert stage.
To the Lobi and Dagara people of Upper-west Ghana and the neighboring areas of Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, the music of the gyil is the essence of cultural identity. These peoples, whose primary occupation is subsistence farming, have over the centuries developed a highly refined manner of playing, and a vast and complex repertoire. The kogyil (recreational gyil), only 14 wooden bars strung over a frame of calabash resonators, utilizes a technique wherein as many as three intertwining bass/baritone lines in the left hand set the tonality and groove, while the right hand trades melodies with the gyil player's sung voice and improvises "jazz standard" style, according to that melody. The proper execution of gyil music is an art requiring years of training and study. Even the most highly skilled musicians of other styles have difficulty grasping it.
The gyil also has profound spiritual significance. Its bars are made from the Nirra tree, where dwell Contombe - the spiritual keepers of honesty, integrity and balance in the community. Not only for the intellect, it is believed that the gyil’s music harmonizes the water in the bodies of people and animals, and that when a person dies its sound vibration transports the soul of the deceased from this life to the next.
Kakraba was born Tijan Sinyiri in Kalba Saru into a family of farmers and traditional gyil masters. In Lobi society trades and special skills are passed along family lines. Gyil players (mostly men) know the music early in life because they have heard it constantly since before birth. In the yard of the gyil family compound sits a kpankpulo - a weathered set of wooden bars arranged exactly as are gyil bars - that are stretched by rawhide over a trench dug in the ground to serve as a resonator. Boys imitate their elders on the kpankpulo and correct each other as a playtime activity. Mysteriously, a number of them develop a thorough technique and master a formidable repertoire at a very early age. Kakraba was one of those youngsters.
He learned how to play gyil from his father and uncles. However, Kakraba was the eldest child - deemed to inherit and run the family farm, As soon as he became of age, he became a farmhand. He soon realized that peasant farming was not rewarding to him. Not understanding the depth of his family's musical tradition, Kakraba left Saaru in order to avoid the mounting pressure for him to run the farm.
Being younger and smaller in stature than most independent men, Kakraba was routinely disrespected and defrauded. History has it that he had named himself “Banda Jel” which means Lizard egg. Banda Jel has a very thick shell of a rubbery quality. You cannot cut it – it rolls away. You cannot stomp it – it bounces away. If you throw it at a wall it bounces back to you. Kakraba was never ready to give up or to shrink from adversity.
After several youthful years of work in non musical fields, Kakraba traveled to the city of Accra. He had an uncle there who ended up not being able to offer anything except an old worn out gyil. Legend has it that Kakraba walked from his uncle’s house to his own compound, not having enough money for taxi fare. He stopped to rest on the roadside and began out loud to remember some of the music of his younger days. The surrounding market women were astonished and delighted and invited him to return and play for them in exchange for small change and food stuffs.
Soon Kakraba was a full-time street musician. He noted that, althought people were fascinated with traditional Lobi gyil music, his transcriptions of local Ga and Twi songs really touched them – made them dance. He became a fixture on the street scene, and was realizing more money than most office workers at the time.
In his early 20s he gave broadcasts for Radio Ghana. In 1957 the noted ethnomusicologist Professor J. H. Nketia offered him a teaching post in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. From 1962 until 1987 he was a full-time member of the staff at the Institute. He also became a founding member of the National Dance Company of Ghana. He was featured as a gyil soloist and toured extensively with The Company throughout the 1960's. Soon overseas promoters approached Kakraba to return to their concert halls by himself, and later with his nephew Yotere Baere, then only about 12 years old, yet a virtuoso in his own right.
Kakraba has performed as a soloist throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa; and has guest lectured at universities in Germany, Japan, Scandinavia, and the United States.
He will always be known for the way that he adapted traditional music, dance music, for the concert audience. When first hired to stay for one year in Cologne, Germany, he attended as many concerts as he possibly could. He took his cues from classical concert artists, then made the concert stage his own laboratory. "If the people clapped much, then I did well," he often mused.
Kakraba created a vast body of original works. One of his notable innovations was to play kpanlogo, a popular Ghanaian dance style derived from the music of the Ga ethnic group, not only adapting traditional songs to the gyil, but composing original ones as well. His innovative approach to composing and improvising has been studied by percussionists and ethnomusicologists from around the world.
Fond of collaboration, Kakraba recorded and toured extensively with Mustapha Tettey Addy and Foday Musa Suso in his youth. I had the privilege to tour the United States five times with Kakraba and Barry Olsen and to record four CDs with them, the final of which was just released this autumn. Together we published 15 of Kakraba’s compositions, transcribing them for Western marimba.
Kakraba Lobi died in Accra, Ghana on July 20, 2007.
Ever since I first heard the marimba in Baja California at the age of six, I have loved the instrument, been attracted to the vibration that comes out of it. I have always loved funk, and funky groovin’ dance music. I wondered, as a youngster, if the two had ever come together. I soon as I first heard Kakraba on the CD "Kakraba Lobi - Xylophone Player from Ghana", I realized that, yes, joyful fast movin’ funk and the marimba had been unified long before my current civilization.
I come from ethnic and a spiritual traditions that respect the mentor/disiple relationship. Traditions that say, “If you want your creative mind and heart to really flourish, find a great mentor; trust them, watch and listen carefully, ask questions when it’s necessary, and do WHATEVER THEY TELL YOU TO, since they have taken your journey already. It has been a genuine honor and privilege to be an apprentice of the great maestro, Kakraba Lobi for 16 years. He was THE example of what a great mentor can be and do. He was a powerful performer who gave it up every single time he played. He had unshakable personal integrity, a strict work ethic, a disciplined yet creative teaching style, and an endless sense of adventure and humor. He loved to talk, but he shunned nonsense talk or malicious talk. Many people criticized him along the way, but regarding his critics he would say, “I can’t pay much attention to them, I must do my work.”
The genuine power of Kakraba’s mentorship proved itself to me years before I actually met and studied with him. Although his records sounded as if he had overdubbed himself, careful reading of album notes revealed that he was recorded live. Stunned, I was determined to solve this musical/intellectual puzzle. As I became more and more obsessed this music, I continued to transcribe and learn it on Western marimba. Over the next few of my youthful years an interesting thing began to happen. My natural tendencies as a multi-percussionist became more melodic and more meta-dependent (independent) between my right and left hands. "What are you doing?!" "How can you do that?!" bandleaders and directors would ask me.
I could only say, “I've been studying the gyil music of Kakraba Lobi."