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Title: Cape Coast—Gyil Solo by Gilbert Berese 16 June 1993. Label: Vetter field recording. Format: DAT. Catalogue#: VC-8. Track: 2.

Title: Gyil Solo by Gilbert Berese. Label: Vetter field recording, 16 June 1993. Format: Hi8. Catalogue#: DT-14.

Contextual Associations

The lo-gyil is a xylophone idiophone, one of two basic xylophone models used by the Dagaba people of the northwestern corner of Ghana. The xylophone most deeply associated with the Dagaba people is a 17-key instrument called gyil, which is used on a variety of occasions but is most strongly linked to funerals. The lo-gyil is a Dagaba borrowing from the neighboring Lobi people (thus the prefix 'lo,' for ‘Lobi’). Lo-gyil, which have fourteen keys, are typically played in pairs and accompanied by vessel drums for recreational music making and dancing and to announce a death within the community. The gyil is considered a male instrument and women are thought to become infertile if they play it. The lo-gyil pictured here is the one that is heard on the audio example and seen in the video clip being played by the person who also built it, Gilbert Berese.  


The frame of this lo-gyil is made of tree branches and milled wood slats. The frame’s foundation is trapezoidal shaped and made from two long branches (for the sides) and two slats of wood (for the ends). A second similarly proportioned trapezoid-shaped frame is constructed from four wood slats. Four vertical posts made from tree branches pass through the corners of these two frames in such a that the upper one is closer to the foundation at one end while the other end is considerably elevated. Running from side-to-side of the upper frame are fourteen sticks of wood secured to the slats with rawhide laces. Running from post to post along the length of the instrument and above the above-mentioned cross sticks is a thick rope made from twisted strands of rawhide. These ropes serve to cushion the keys from coming into direct contact with the wood frame. The fourteen keys are made from an unknown variety of hardwood with straight grain. They tapper in length from right to left, but start out with roughly the same thickness. Tuning is accomplished by removing wood from the bottom side of the keys; a greater amount of wood is removed from the middle for the lower-pitched keys and from both ends for the higher-pitched ones. The keys are attached to and suspended over the frame with two nylon ropes. Each of the ropes is tied to one end post of the frame, and then looped around each key in succession before being securely tied to the post at the other end of the frame. These loops contact the keys at points approximately one-quarter of the length of the key from its ends, which are dead spots or nodes in the vibrational cycle of rectangular keys. Beneath each key and suspended with nylon rope from the cross-sticks mentioned above is a vessel resonator (see first detail image). Each of these gourd resonators has a volume attuned to the frequency of the key above it. One or two holes are drilled into the wall of each resonator and covered with a thin membrane (made from polyurethane bag swatches on this instrument) that vibrates sympathetically when the key above its resonator is struck (see second detail image). Sidebars made from long thin branches are tied to the sides of the frame to hold the larger gourds in place. The beaters used to strike the keys are made from short segments of a tree branch tipped with a thick ball of natural rubber.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A lo-gyil player sits facing a side (either one) of the instrument on a low stool holding the beaters, one in each hand, with a forked grip (the stem of the beater runs between the index and middle fingers). He strikes the middle of the keys with a consistently strong force to produce a two-part counterpoint that often features a hemiola relationship between the rhythms of the two lines. A second musician can sit on the opposite side of the instrument tapping out a timeline rhythm on the end of the uppermost key. The instrument is tuned to an anhemitonic pentatonic scale (five tones to the octave with no semitones between scale degrees) and covers a range of 2.5 octaves from approximately G-sharp2 to D-sharp5. The membranes on the resonators add a culturally preferred buzz-like timbre to the sound of the instrument.


The gyil is an instrument with strong spiritual significance as it is believed to originate from a fairy. A man heard a fairy playing xylophone and forced the fairy to teach him how to play and construct the gyil. The man then killed the fairy and the fairy's blood remains in the instrument. This results in the belief that playing the gyil is dangerous for one's spirit and should only be attempted with proper spiritual protection. The danger of playing gyil has not lessened the appeal, however. The gyil has entered into educational contexts as a musical instrument taught to students as a xylophone ensemble as well as becoming prominent among Dagaba miners working in mines outside of their home region. This has exposed gyil music to western musical influences and other African traditions resulting in incorporation of the gyil into non-traditional musical contexts.

Bibliographic Citations

DjeDje, Jacqueline Cogdell. 1998. "West Africa: An Introduction." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.1. ed. Ruth M. Stone. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 442-470.

Gourlay, K. A. 1984. “Gyilli (dziilli, dzil, chohun.)” NGDMI v.2: 114.

Saighoe, Francis A. Kobin. 1988. The Music Behavior of Dagaba Immigrants in Tarkwa, Ghana: A Study of Situational Change. Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services.

Wiggins, Trevor. 1996. Bewaare: They Are Coming. CD and liner notes. Pan Records PAN 2052CD.

________, and Joseph Kobom. 1992. Xylophone Music from Ghana. Crown Point, IN: White Cliffs Media Company.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: West Africa

Nation: Ghana

Formation: Dagaba

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.212 idiophone--set of percussion sticks: several percussion sticks of different pitch are combined to form a single instrument, struck with a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker)

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: block - oblong bar

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: separate resonating space/s attuned to pitch/es of sonorous object/s - built into instrument

Number of players: one or multiple

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - stick with padded ball end

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: tensioned membrane over hole in resonator


46 in. length of frame 20.5 in. greatest height of frame posts 23 in. length of longest key 2.9 in width of longest key 17 in. length of shortest key 2 in. width of shortest key 0.95 in. thickness of all keys

Primary Materials

rawhide - twisted


Gilbert Berese

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin