The Dagari Music of Ghana

By Valerie Naranjo
Deep in the upper west region of the West African Country of Ghana live the Dagari People (pronounced Da Ga Ree) (1). Because of difficulties in both travel and communications, and perhaps because of the relatively barren conditions of their land, the Dagari tribe has been left relatively free from many of the European influences that other West African peoples have experienced, even other Ghanaians in the more southern part of the country. The agricultural lifestyle of this people is simple and community-based. Work for survival is shared, and the arts are the supreme source for intellectual and social development. At the center of their music is the gyil (pronounced approximately Jee-Lee), an eleven, thirteen, or sixteen barred instrument which sounds somewhat like the marimba. Its bars are cut from Legaa wood, one of the few hardwoods in the area, and are resonated by calabash gourds. The bars are arranged in a single row, from low-left to high-right, pentatonically, and span a range of three to four octaves (enough to accomodate everyone’s vocal range). Although a special type of gyil is played in pairs at funerals, for most other purposes the gyil is a solo instrument (2). In its simplest form, it is played in two voices, with bass ostinato in the left hand and alto melody in the right hand, or with three or four-voiced polyrhythmic (and, at times, polymetric) dialogue in its most complex mode.

The gyil is described as the mascot of the region. Few males among the Dagari are not able to play at least a tune ot two. The masters of the instrument have dedicated themselves to it for years, acquiring an understanding of its spiritual/ religious significance and learning from their elders its huge repertoire. During the Dagari’s pre-harvest festival (called “Kobine”), hundreds of gyil players, percussionists, dancers and people from the entire region convene for three days and two nights of activities. It is the highlight of the year. Practically all aspects of Dagari life are fused with this grandparent of the marimba, and its musician-healers.

Gyil music is a combination of strictly interpreted works and individual performer’s improvisation. Many pieces are played in much the same manner as jazz standards: first the “tune”; improvisation; then, to finalize, the “tune” again. Other works are passed on note by note, from master to student, and new works are always being created.

I undertook research of Dagari music in the upper west region of Ghana in 1988, 89′ and again in 91′ from masters Newin Baaru and Richard Nai-le under the auspices of the Arts Council of Ghana and Paramount Chief Karboo II.

I found that the Dagaris’ priorities of love, community, fusion with the past, and physical activity that form the core of their tribal life create an attitude- a “spirit” that permeates everything about them, including their art, music, dance, drama storytelling, and other cultural activities. I was most impressed by the people’s constant use of the arts to kindle their inner joy, a precious elixier with which to face the many difficulties, (including poor health care and poverty) that they must face daily.

The study of Dagari song systems provides a key to specific idiomatic capabilities of the mallet instruments, expecially the marimba, which is the gyil’s closest Western relative. The marimba is unique for its capability of what I’ll call “metadependence”, the specific technique that occurs when interdependent lines interlock in dialogue. This technique is exemplified in Keiko Abe’s Michi and, to some extent Gordon Stout’s First Mexican Dance. The mode of playing “metadependently” is a central aspect of the Dagari gyil style.

During my initial investigation of gyil music, I was forced to transcribe it onto marimba, not having a gyil to study on. I found that my Marimba technique changed and improved, and the resulting music sounded great.

Although the gyil is a close relative of the marimba, there are basic differences: 1) Its scalar system is pentatonic. 2) West Africans have no fixed pitch, e.g. A=440. Instruments are pitched according to the ear of their maker. While some gyils are scaled close to Western F# major pentatonic, other have a lowered second pitch (G#), raised third pitch (A#) and lowered fourth pitch (C#). 3) The gyil’s timbre is more “woody” than “glassy”, and its decay time much shorter than the marimba’s, expecially, in the lower registers. This can effect the appropriate tempo of certain pieces as they switch from gyil to marimba. 4) It is easier to “get around” on the gyil. this can effect tempo of certain works, although much of the challenge of playing Dagari works on marimba is keeping its spirit while constantly manipulating over “tricky” intervals.

It is also noteworthy that Dagari music is full of transcriptions. Within Ghana, certainly throughout West Africa, different people have differing modes of making music. For example, some people of the northern region play stringed instruments not found elsewhere; coastal drummers play instruments not found in the North. People constantly travel and exchange music.

For example, “Kpanlogo” itself an international style, originally for drum ensemble and voices; and the Hausa music of Nigeria, was originally for drums and voices too. Transferring music from gyil to marimba is acceptable. The resulting music is “whole” and pleasing. It not only stands on its own right, but also provides a source of technical/ creative insight, and an understanding of the relationship between African music and Afro-oriented styles in the Americas and beyond.

There is much to be gained, both musically and otherwise by studying the musical activity of the relatively uncolonized Dagari nation. This people espouse the attitude that drawing from the past is necessary for a healthy present and future development. They successfully take music and other arts beyond the realm of concert/audience directly into the entire community, building a common healing and invigorating language for the people. The music answers questions, general and specific, about the link between West Africa and the Americas. The music of the gyil, the Dagaris’ central instrument, shows specific idiomatic “keys” and technical insights to marimba music. Transcriptions of Dagari gyil works provide a body of music that helps fill a space in marimba literature for traditional music from the African continent.

Lo Ben Doma is an example of funeral music for this particular style of gyil. Example #1 is played on marimba, and #2, on a thirtenn barred gyil.

Kpanlogo is both the name of the style and of the piece (example #2). This piece is well known throughout Ghana, and is transcribed from an original rendition that was probably done by drummers and singers. Example #2 is played on marimba and accompanied by clave and congas, both Latin American derived from Africa.

1. Many discussions of “Dagari peoples” or “Dagaris” include such other sub-groups as the Lobi, Wala, and Sesala tribes. Because of cultural fusion through inter-marriage, at times specific tribal terms are not accurate.

2. Although the gyil can be accompanied by a player striking two sticks on a non-tuned part of the instrument, a Kuar (hand drum), and by dancers who wear metal rattles and carry a metal “castanet” called nupiraa, the music of a single gyil player stands on its own. This is distinguishable from the balophon style of Cameroon, or the marimba style of Zimbabwe, in which several parts, each played by a different person, are combined to make a complete musical work.