The 405 Meets SK Kakraba

Originally published via The 405

“I come from Saru, a small farming community in the northern part of Ghana,” says SK Kakraba, speaking to me over the phone from his home in Los Angeles historic Highland Park neighborhood. “A lot of good gyil players have come from there. In my culture, the music of the gyil is very important at funerals. It is played to celebrate the life of the deceased and help them rest in peace in the next world.”

Now in his late 30s, but blessed with a face that makes him look ten years younger in press photos, Kakraba is considered by some to be the world’s greatest gyil player. For those unfamiliar, the gyil is a Ghanaian xylophone. With 14 wooden slats strung across calabash gourd resonators, every time a note is played it emits a fuzzy rattle. That rattle comes from silk walls of spiders’ egg sacs stretched across holes in the gourds, called paapieye in SK’s Lobi language.

In Western culture, the xylophone is often relegated to children’s music classes. Within the Lobi tribe, however, as Kakraba has already explained, the instrument and it’s music serves a crucial role in funeral rituals. Long and complicated, their multi-day funeral rites hinge around the gyil.”Xylophone players are the people who have to be there. If they aren’t, there can’t be a funeral,” he says in Ghanaian accent softened by several years spent living in America. “It’s a healing instrument. It’s played in other settings like wedding ceremonies, but the most important place is the funeral.”

Kakraba grew up with the gyil in his family home. His parents played, as did theirs; and so on. “I was ten when I started playing it seriously,” he recalls. “But I was actually playing it when I was six or seven. I can say that my whole lifetime I have been playing the instrument. There are people who are born with the gift of the instrument. You know that you will play it, and your family knows you will play it because you have the interest. You will play because when you play it is good.”

When I ask Kakraba about the origins of the gyil, he relates a Lobi myth. “The instrument was discovered in ancient times by a hunter who went into the forest to hunt for an antelope. When he found the antelope, it was playing the gyil. He didn’t know what it was, and he tried to shoot the antelope. The antelope was praying for his life and promised to give him the instrument if he didn’t shoot him. That was how it was discovered.”

The music played on it is equally ancient, intricate compositions and improvisational modes passed down through the generations by hereditary musicians as birthright. “The music is from ancient times. When we are growing up, we learn those songs to perform at funerals. There are always xylophone players in the villages. You could learn from your grandfather, uncle or father. If you have the interest to play, you will learn all of the tunes.”

Navigating an interzone where melody and rhythm are inextricably intertwined, the music of the gyil is hypnotic and singular, percussive complexity giving way to harmonic beauty and back again. In a sense, an extended listening session can serve as a sonic palette cleansing. With repetition, a vast array of feelings and moods emerge from the minimalist sound, especially when performed by a player as skilled and engaged a player as Kakraba.

While learning to play, Kakraba was taught how to handcraft the instrument in the forests of Ghana. After spending a stint playing gyil in the markets of Ghana’s capital Accra with his uncle (also a very celebrated gyil player), he began teaching gyil at the University of Ghana in 1999. As his fame grew, he began to tour the world, making 19 trips to Japan alone. “It was nice playing in the markets,” he reflects. “I learned a lot, and I would play every day. I also got money, because people would throw money on the instrument. That was very helpful.”

During his time teaching gyil at the University of Ghana, Kakraba befriended two Americans named Brian: Brian Shimkovitz of Awesome Tapes From Africa and UCLA Ethnomusicology Ph.D. graduate Brian Hogan. Both were crucial to his latest album Songs of Paapieye: a collection of solo performances of Kakraba’s favourite song cycles, funeral standards, improv interpretations of traditional songs and originals. Hogan recorded the album at the studio he operates in San Francisco. Shimkovitz is releasing it in vinyl, CD, cassette tape and digital download formats through Awesome Tapes From Africa’s record label. It will be the first non-reissue record the label has released.

Since September 2012, Kakraba has been living in Los Angeles. He divides his time there between teaching gyil, recording, collaborating, and playing shows around America. In recent years, he’s performed on prestigious internet radio station dublab and formed his own SK Kakraba band with local musicians. He’s also recorded with psychedelic dub musician Sun Araw, who released Kakraba’s last album Yonye through his Drag City sub-label Sun Ark earlier in the year. “I don’t see these sorts of music in my hometown,” Kakraba admits. “Since moving here, I’ve learned about a lot of different music. America is a mixed culture, and I am very lucky to be mixing funeral music with the other types of music I am seeing here in America. “

Given Kakraba’s journey from a farming village in Ghana to one of the most storied cities in the western world, I can’t resist asking him how he feels presenting this music to audiences in America. “When I play music here everyone is so happy. They like the instrument and the playing. They ask me questions about the instrument, and what occasions it is used for. People love it when I mix it with the band sounds. It’s exciting playing with these other instruments. We don’t have those in my hometown.”

SK Kakraba’s album Songs of Paapieye is out now through Awesome Tapes From Africa.

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