by Susie Sokol
from Jumbie Journal, April 2005
When I first handed my second grade students mallets and let them play on the gyil (pronounced JEEL), it was love at first strike! They were instantly smitten with this African xylophone.
My college friend Derek Bermel first introduced me to the gyil when he played for me a little ditty about a hawk that falls into the bitter pito brew and spoils it. The song and story were so simple and I remember thinking, "My students will LOVE learning this." I loved the way you could sing the words to the song, "Katumba durba datoi," and then play the gyil, and hear it 'singing' those same words.
I began my study of the gyil with three weeks in Ghana, thanks to the generous support of St. Ann's, the school I teach at in Brooklyn. I spent my time in Ghana studying with the xylophone master himself, Bernard Woma, at his School of Music and Dance. The first song he taught me was called Ne wa seb. Although I had studied West African dance for ten years, I had no prior musical training. But Bernard broke the song down into six variations, which made it easier for me. As I learned the piece, I knew that Bernard had unwittingly given me the heart and soul of my curriculum on West Africa for next year.
I came back to St. Ann's with two twelve-keyed gyils fresh off the plane from Ghana. It didn't take long before the kids were asking to play the gyil in the morning (our not-so-quiet "Quiet Activity") and later in the day for "Free Choice." Ne wa seb became our class anthem, our daily pledge of gyil-legiance.
At the same time we were studying West African folktales and Kente and Adinkra cloth. The patterns in the cloth reminded some kids of the patterns in the xylophone songs. We also did a project on gourds in West Africa; after visiting the Brooklyn Museum of Art's African mask wing, we transformed our moldy gourds into animated objects.
Many of my students were just starting piano lessons, and began trying out the gyil songs on the piano. Their attempts to 'westernize' the gyil prompted terrific discussions about the difference between the Western and African pentatonic scales.
After lessons and classroom visits by Kakraba Lobi and Valerie Naranjo, Bernard Woma himself came to the US and came to my class. When Bernard teaches, he breaks the ice with the audience by getting everybody to stand up and clap and yell, "Shake your body!" over and over again. My kids and I have taken this rallying cry to heart. On one visit, Bernard was joined by Lizzie, a Ghanaian dancer. The kids were completely taken by the sight of her dancing to his gyil and the communication between them-as when the dancer waits for the "drum break" signal to move on to the next step.
I love the gyil because it is big, bulky, kind of humorous with its dangling gourds, and very kid-like. It's almost half the size of some of my students. In my own playing, I find I have to be absolutely at one with the instrument, letting go of both negative thoughts like "I'm so horrible at this" and positive ones like "Wow, Susie, you're doing so great!" I know the gyil is giving me another life lesson to share with my students.
Some of my kids are obsessed, and I mean obsessed, with the gyil. They find gyil everywhere. They'll play the songs with mallets on the rug or on a bookshelf or on a friend's back. Other kids have grown to love the cowbell; still other kids love the djembe drum -- pete pete boom bata ping bata boom.
When Bernard led my kids in a workshop last December, he was so impressed that he invited them to be part of the African Xylophone Festival this April, and to 'open' for him at Satalla. We gladly accepted the gig and the kids are devoting their free time, morning and afternoon, to practice their parts.
They are also carrying the gyil tradition to others. At our last holiday school party, my students started to teach the gyil to their parents. It was an amazing sight seeing them teaching the songs they'd learned on the gyil, coaching their parents where to hit the instrument and how to hold the mallets.
I would love for my kids' love of the gyil to inspire other schools to begin working with traditional West African instruments, as well. I like to think that my students have the power to help preserve and lengthen the life of the gyil, and in grander terms, the culture of Ghana.