The Xylophone

Culture and Tradition

The Xylophone (Gyil) in Ghana is mostly played in the Northern Region by the DAGAABA and SISAALA people whose territory also extends into Burkina Faso.

In certain areas the instrument is considered to be scared and played only for funerals, but generally xylophones are used for all kind of musical occasions. (E.g. Wedding, Religious ceremonies popular events and any large gatherings). The Dagaaba still play it today as a symbol of Unity during gatherings to entertain the public.

Xylophone making is considered sacred and for generations had been known to some very few families only. The knowledge has been passed from father to son by way of initiation. The Dagaabas believe in the concept of One Allmighty God far away somewhere, who is in charge of all living things and beings on Earth and responsible for their actions. Therefore in ritual ceremonies tunes are played that are not to be used for ordinary occassions.

Materials

Our modern xylophone is a complex assemble of various natural and industrious materials:

Redwood is used in constructing the frame. This is insect resistant. Cowhide and other skins  are cut into stripes and used in tying the frame or wooden structure together. Some are also used to decorate the frame. For stabilising  the frame is nailed.

A number of gourds  are tested and those which resonate the pitched bars are hang onto the frame.

Hardwood (and most often dead Sheanuts trees or Mahogany) is used for the bars or keys. It is kilndried or seasoned and then cut to sizes of the bars. After Suspending it  over an open pit, which serves as a resonator for tuning  the back of the ends. The axe is used to cut out from the centre  to lower the pitch. Cutting from the end of the key is raising the pitch.

The scale it is tuned to traditionally is PENTATONIC, and here anhemi pentatonic (= nasal pentagonic). The xylophone tuning is a rather relative one ( not getting the perfect C or other key) but rather it equalises the intervals.

The intervals can be named G - A - C - D - E.

The keys are assembled on the frame with the gourds by a rope from  twisted goatskin, or better (because it can not cut) by twisted antelope skin.

The wood for the keys is rare and can only been found in the Savannah and grassland zones of Northern Ghana and some areas that extend to Burkina Faso.

The beaters or mallets had traditionally heads from thin stripes of Latex wound round the ends of a moulded piece of rounded wood, which is 30 cm long and 2-3 cm diameter thick to have a strong hold in the hand.  The modern version has a circle cut from a car tyre,  as this head is more durable.

Music by xylophone

Xylophone is played by men only and can be played as a Solo instrument or as a pair, but then it should be tuned the same. The two people sit facing eachother, a short distance apart. One of them will is decide which pieces are to be played, the other player is then joining with a more repetitive accompanying tune.

The xylophone is a percussion instrument when properly tuned and can be played with other percussion together.

Interested youth learn by playing  simple tunes as part of their life and gradually grew to master it.

Christopher Doozie, the xylophonmaker, player and teacher:

Hailing from Jirapa in the Upper West Region of Ghana, Christopher developed interest in playing xylophone already at the age of 6. His father then taught him how to make xylophone

when he was 12. By copying his father Christopher mastered and his father initiated him at the age of 15. But also his father stressed on education, so Christopher became a professional and then came to Accra after his Secondary school education when he was 20 years. He then studied and  performed as an instructor at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Legon, Ghana.

So he came into the contact of „Modern Xylophone and Music“. He had several appointments, including the National Symphony Orchestra.

In 1990 he left the academic field and built up his workshop to construct xylophones.

Up to today Christopher is the only professional xylophone builder, player and teacher.