You’re inevitably familiar with the xylophone. In Western culture, it’s a staple in children’s music classes — a toy ostensibly anyone can play. But for the Lobi tribe of northern Ghana, an ancestor of the xylophone called the gyil is a fixture at funeral rituals, a sacred instrument that consoles the souls of the dead as they ascend to the afterlife.
The man who might be the world’s greatest xylophone player sits in the garage of his home in Highland Park, surrounded by a half-dozen personally hand-carved gyil. These aren’t the cheap percussive metal you might remember but thick wooden sleds, 14 bars each, suspended over calabash gourds and affixed with decorative knobs. The tools of a master.
“It’s very serious in our culture. If someone passes away and no one can play it, the funeral can’t happen,” SK Kakraba says, wearing a gray hoodie, jeans and braided hair. He’s in his late 30s but unlined and ageless. Barefoot, he lies on a gray couch next to several hanging bicycles and an antique African hand drum.
Kakraba grew up in Saru, a tiny farming village in a traditional and animist region of Ghana. The xylophone was his birthright. As a young child, Kakraba was spotted with clenched fingers, the symbolic mark of a budding player.
He was trained to fashion the instruments out of a rare wood the Lobi call neura, in a numinous rite amongst a people whose name translates to “children of the forest.”
“It’s a very hard process, because you have to get the wood from five different places, only found in Ghana’s forests,” Kakraba explains. “The trees fall on their own and when they do, you cut them, dry the wood and lay the keys.”
According to Lobi myth, the gyil was discovered when a hunter stumbled upon an antelope playing it in the bush. Begging for his life, the animal gave the xylophone to the tribe, who eventually came to believe that its arboreal sound represents the vibrations of water — a timbre that casts harmonious spells on humans and forest creatures.
Kakraba’s parents played; so did their parents, and all his ancestors before them. His uncle, whom he calls his father, was the most famous musician the tribe ever produced, the first to take the gyil out of funeral ceremonies and play it in the marketplaces of Ghana’s cap-ital, Accra. He eventually toured around the world, including 19 trips to Japan.
Tutored by the elders of the tribe and eventually by his uncle, Kakraba became the brightest light of this generation. Mistakes were corrected, technique learned. His legend grew.
“In our villages, the gyil was all we knew,” Kakraba says. “There was no outside radio. It’s our national instrument, played by men, women and children.”
When he was 20, his uncle/father brought him to Accra, where he taught at a local university. As hiplife, a fusion of highlife and hip-hop, became the sound of Ghana’s youth, Kakraba sustained the tradition of his tribe, recording an album of pentatonic requiems and playing around the world.
Kakraba came to L.A. shortly after marrying his American-born wife in 2011. They met in Accra, where she routinely visited as part of her work in the fashion industry. He gives xylophone lessons and frequently gigs throughout America — including a solo June 26 show at the Getty Center.
He’s also been welcomed by Internet radio station Dublab and psychedelic experimentalist Sun Araw. Next month, Araw releases Kakraba’s third album, Yonye, through his Drag City imprint, Sun Ark. Most of the songs are ancestral prayers, step-by-step incantations to ensure peaceful eternity for the deceased. They’re as hypnotic and otherworldly as you might expect — unfamiliar music, to Western ears, at its very best.
An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.