by Alex Smith
The gyil, a Ghanaian xylophone, is caught at the intersection of environmental sustainability, global market strains, and its cultural relevance. Ghanaian people value the gyil’s primary material, the endangered African rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus, also called lera, liga, or nera by certain indigenous communities in Ghana’s northern regions where the tree is endemic) not only for its musical properties, but also its cultural power, domestic usages, and spiritual significance. Complicating this scenario is that some international communities now desire African rosewood for their own music and furniture markets resulting in deforestation and over exploitation. This increase in forest exploitation brings up conflicting value narratives and issues of environmental justice, which, when paired with climate change, have a dramatic impact on both natural and human communities in Ghana’s savanna regions. This article supports and applies the ecomusicological research practice of broadening scope to include materials, objects, and ecosystems that support music making. The video content features footage of gyil making and tree and bush usage by Birifor people, interviews with Birifor people, an interview with research scientist William K. Dumenu, and performances by world-renowned gyil musicians Tijan Dorwana and SK Kakraba.
Tijan Dorwana playing the gyil outside his home in Saru, Ghana. Photo by the author.
The scope of Ecomusicology broadens from people making music, to include natural communities which are actively influencing and making music possible (for the purposes of this text, “natural” or “nature” will refer to non-human, or more-than-human, life; for example, a “natural community” might refer to a forest or aquatic ecosystem). At the 2018 Society for Ethnomusicology President’s Round Table, Aaron Allen discussed the need for ecocentrism in our anthropocentric world, and he likened anthropocentrism with discrimination based on race, gender, age, nationality, etc. Environmental concerns are intricately connected with these issues. Privileging human life above other life forms, including in academic research, is a form of anthropocentricism. That which does not consider natural components can be limited in scope.
To better understand the various communities who use the gyil to make music, the ecosystems that support them must also be considered. The gyil itself is an extension of the forest, since every material used to make it is acquired there (this idea is no different for any made object, though in our globalized political economy it can be easy to forget about the origins and previous natural lives of things). I argue that this approach, and ones like it, paint a more complete picture of music’s role in society, since the definition of “society” in this case considers the natural alongside the musical and the cultural. Without nature there are no people, or people making music. Developing a better understanding of the many narratives of material objects, and the once living things that make material objects, can lead to increased appreciation for those things, and for the human and natural communities who value them deeply.
Gyil Material Value Narratives
Saru is a village community in Ghana’s Northern Region on the coast of the Black Volta, next to the Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso borders. It is part of the Guinea Savanna ecological zone, home to intrinsically valuable trees, such as African rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus), and “natural” communities. Saru is one of many villages in the area inhabited by the Birifor people. Residents are mostly subsistence farmers who also engage in fishing, hunting, and foraging. The people in Saru have an intimate and dependent relationship with the forest-savanna, as this is where many of their daily essentials are acquired for domestic, recreational, and entrepreneurial tasks. Trees and bushes are particularly valuable in the production of the gyil, a Ghanaian xylophone, an instrument essential to the socio-cultural life of the Birifor people (the gyil is also essential to the Dagara, Sesala, and Lobi peoples, however the Birifor will be the focus of this article); African rosewood is the primary material used for producing gyil keys. More broadly, Saru residents and Northerners value trees, including African rosewood, for fuelwood (i.e. firewood and charcoal). In conflict with these local uses of forest-savanna trees and bushes is a recent and large-scale demand for, and often illegal exploitation of, African rosewood as timber for international furniture markets. African rosewood is also valued and consumed by an increasingly global network of gyil performers, teachers, and audiences.
Birifor Non-Musical Usages of Trees and Bushes
Saru residents are intricately connected with their surrounding forest-savanna. From toys for children, to ingredients in food, to house construction, to spiritual value, trees and bushes are an important part of everyday life. For example, the ko tie (mahogany tree) and tiyere tie (nymph tree) are both valued for their medicinal properties. Kpal tie (ebony tree), lera tie (African rosewood), and others are used for house and local bench construction. Apart from house, local bench, and xylophone key construction, leaves from lera are commonly used as fodder for livestock. Watch video 1 for more information about everyday tree and bush usages by Birifor people in Saru.
Video 1. Tree and Bush Usage in Birifor Communities (ft. Tijan Dorwana).
In particular, trees are valued for fuelwood (i.e. firewood and charcoal); lera is particularly valuable due to its high calorific value. Firewood is needed every day for cooking, while the production of charcoal is a nationwide enterprise that offers Saru residents a secondary income source. Women are mostly responsible for firewood collection and charcoal production. Video 2 follows one Saru woman, Comfort Sokogir, through the typical domestic tasks of cooking and firewood collection. A link to interviews with three Saru women about their involvement in, and the importance of, the national charcoal industry is provided in the video description.
This video demonstrates the importance of trees in Saru residents’ life in a way that words cannot express. The interviews with charcoal, firewood, and Birifor cuisine experts, as well as the extensive footage of these highly physical, challenging, and skill-based tasks, help demonstrate the skills and knowledge that many of the women in Saru possess. Their years of experience are an indicator of the importance of the work itself, and the resulting product of that work, in Birifor society. While I acknowledge that this project, video ethnography, and ethnography in general have a range of issues, it is vital that we understand the ways a material valued for one thing (e.g. musical instrument construction) is valued at the same level, if not more, for a completely different purpose by real people in real places (a globalized cultural organology, perhaps).
Video 2. Women and Fuelwood in Saru.
Tree and Bush Usage for Birifor Gyil Construction
Gyil carving in the North is not a commercial enterprise. Carvers are often farmers first and gyil carvers second. A carver in the North might make one or two instruments a year for customers within the community. The instruments that carvers make and sell in the North could be for families, clans, or villages; they may be used for recreational playing, to allow the youth to have an instrument to practice on, and, of course, to be used at funerals and festivals when needed (two of the major socio-cultural events where gyil music is played). See video 3 for more information about the importance of the gyil and Birifor funerals.
Video 3. The Gyil and the Birifor Funeral.
Gyil construction is made up of almost entirely locally and sustainably sourced tree and bush materials. For example, a variety of woods can be used for frame construction, each with their own benefits. When available, scrap rosewood from the key-making process can be used for leg construction. Carvers also often use branches from the ga tie (ga tree) and from the sonsur tie for the entirety of frame construction. These frame materials yield strong and durable, but heavy, instruments. Alternatively, branches from the yiela tie provide another source for frame wood, which produce an instrument that is light and easily transportable, an important attribute when a gyil must be carried long distances by either foot or by motor bike to a funeral or festival. Carvers, then, have options when it comes to this particular aspect of gyil construction, which is often shaped by the preferences of the customer, yielding individually unique instruments. Even the glue used for gyil construction is often retrieved from the konkon tie. The varnish carvers use to seal and bring out the color of the key wood is acquired from a liquid that comes out of cut borna tie branches; and when the borna tie is not used, carvers will use shea butter, another locally produced tree product of annually harvested shea nuts from the ton tie (shea nut tree).
The practice of gyil carving is constantly changing, often the result of resource scarcity linked to environmental issues. For example, until recently the keys were tied with antelope skin, but since antelope are increasingly scarce in the North, carvers now use a synthetic rope manufactured abroad and often acquired from big cities like Accra and Kumasi. Many carvers and players actually prefer this rope since it requires less maintenance (i.e. skins must be regularly oiled and moisturized). Another example is the panpri (spider egg sacs), that in the past were mended to the calabashes to achieve the characteristic buzz sound. According to Tijan Dorwana and Bernard Woma (the late world-renowned gyil musician and academic), these materials are no longer abundant since increased usage of anti-malarial insecticides have reduced spider populations. Carvers now often use light United States Post Office or FedEx envelopes. When the envelopes are not available carvers will reuse plastic bags (rɔba, black rɔba, or polythene). While the synthetic rope presents an alternative that carvers and players prefer over the original material, many carvers prefer the original panpri sound to its alternatives. Watch video 4 for more information about the materials used for gyil carving.
Video 4. Gyil Carving and Materials (ft. SK Kakraba).
Gyil keys in the North are almost exclusively made from recycled or fallen lera (African rosewood). Carvers never cut down living trees for xylophone key production. Instead, they search for logs that have fallen in the forest due to natural causes, and that have been lying and drying on the forest floor for several years. Dried logs are preferred since they are easier to carve, have a higher sound quality, and are less likely to go out of tune over time. While it is possible for carvers to still acquire logs in this way, deforestation due to recent global demand for the species (Bandoh and Dumenu 2016; Treanor 2015; Environmental Investigation Agency 2017) has made fallen logs harder to find. Alternatively, carvers can acquire rosewood logs within their villages, such as from old houses and local benches. This is the case for the log that is the subject of video 5.
Video 5. Rosewood Gyil Keys (Lera, Liga, Nera) (ft. Tijan Dorwana and SK Kakraba).
Gyil carvers and performers believe that lera is spiritual. In a version of the xylophone origin story shared with me by Tijan Dorwana, a hunter who was looking for antelope with little success suddenly came across a kontombile in the form of an antelope in the forest. In Birifor spirituality, the kontombile are dwarfs or fairies with spiritual and magical powers, and a somewhat complicated relationship with humans. The hunter threatened to kill the kontombile, but the kontombile’s life was spared in exchange for giving the hunter the knowledge of how to build and play the gyil. This knowledge included lera as the wood to be used for the keys. Perhaps due to lera’s connections to the kontombile, gyil carvers believe that improper handling of the wood (such as cutting down living trees for xylophone carving or failing to perform the customary offerings before beginning key construction) can lead to declining health, injury, or even the death of the carver. Watch video 6 for more information about tree and gyil spirituality and importance, as well as the impacts of the recent international demand for African rosewood on gyil carvers.
Video 6. Rosewood and Gyil Spirituality.
International Gyil Production and Consumption
The gyil is an instrument of value for a global community. Ghanaian expatriates and people from around the world who are interested in Ghana, such as tourists, music students, and professional musicians, often purchase instruments for their personal use, for teaching their students, or for re-selling them to other interested parties in places outside of Ghana. Musical-cultural tourist and educational institutions, such as the Dagara Music Center (DMC), play an important role in fostering interest and demand for gyil music, performance, and the instrument itself, fueling the gyil’s production-consumption chain. As a result, an extensive network of professional gyil carvers has developed in Ghana’s South to support this unprecedented demand for the instrument.
Unlike the practice of gyil carving in Ghana’s North, gyil carving in the South is a larger scale, professional enterprise fueled by a largely international consumer base. This makes gyil markets similar to many other globalized instrument markets like those for the djembe (Polak 2010), didgeridoo (Ryan 2015), and shakuhachi flute (Matsunobu 2013). In Accra alone, there are a number of carvers with a variety of specializations and consumer networks. One of these carvers is Tijan Dorwana, who primarily makes Birifor-style instruments. Isaac Dorwana, Tijan Dorwana’s son, is based out of Lapaz in Accra, and also primarily makes Birifor-style instruments. He has made gyil for the Legon Community School, the University of Ghana, and for Ghanaian artists living abroad who resell the instruments. He and his father both make custom instruments upon request. Ba-ere Yotere is a Birifor xylophone carver, performer, and teacher based out of the Arts Center in Accra, a large market for Ghanaian arts, including carvings, jewelry, clothing, and musical instruments. Yotere primarily makes Birifor-style instruments, and has taught the world-renowned percussionist Valerie Naranjo. James Gumah Litey is another Birifor xylophone carver based out of the Arts Center. Litey often keeps the Birifor-style gyil in stock, intended for sale to professional musicians, but primarily sells instruments of smaller sizes to Ghanaian souvenir retailers. The smaller sizes facilitate tourists’ ability to pack them for travel in airplanes. Christopher Doozie is a Dagara xylophone carver based out of East Legon in Accra. He specializes in making and performing on music therapy instruments for people on the autism spectrum and also made some of the instruments used in the Broadway Lion King production. Especially during the first decade of the 2000’s, Doozie sold large quantities of xylophones and other “cultural products” to American retailers because of the African Growth and Opportunity Act; he says that these business relationships have largely slowed despite the legislation’s extension to 2025. Watch video 7 to see and hear some of these carvers’ work.
Video 7. Gyil Carvers in Accra for a Global Market.
Demand for gyil is fueled by a host of consumers, such as performers, educators, and academics, whom incorporate gyil into their music and profession. For example, SK Kakraba is a Birifor gyil performer and educator based out of Los Angeles, California. Kakraba often sells instruments to his students in the US. Bex Burch is a xylophone carver and musician based out of London, England. Burch, the band leader for Vuela Viel, lived in Ghana’s Upper West for three years where she learned to carve and play the gyil by studying with Thomas Sekgura. Momo Verner is a gyil carver and performer based out of Bremen, Germany. Verner met Tijan Dorwana in the 1980s through their work together in the Kalifi Dance Ensemble, intriguing his interest in learning to play and carve the instrument. Verner and his wife Marita Meyer incorporate the gyil into the music of their group Trio Holzig. Danny Mesél is a musician based out of Budapest, Hungary who, among other things, uses the gyil in musical-theatrical programs for young children. Hitomi Tono’ka is a Jazz mallet percussionist from Nagoya, Japan who merges gyil music with other Jazz, popular, and commercial influences. Griffin Brady is the director of the Sly Boots School of Music, Art, and Dance in Buffalo, NY, which emphasizes African Drum and Dance practices such as gyil music to promote “…positive social change through cultural arts education and performance.” Lastly, the gyil is often a part of the work of many academics, including, but not limited to, Mike Vercelli from West Virginia University, Kay Stonefelt from State University of New York at Fredonia, Shane and Chelsea Jones from Utah Valley University, and me, from University of Central Missouri; not to mention the interest in and demand for gyil music that we encourage in our students via study abroad and hosting Ghanaian guest artists on our campuses for residencies and performances.
Mentioned previously, the DMC is a musical-cultural tourism site for global learning founded in 2000 by Bernard Woma in the Accra suburb of Medie; it is one example of an institution that creates and fosters global value for the gyil, and Ghanaian music and culture more broadly. The DMC is an important player in the international gyil production-consumption chain. Many Ghanaian professional gyil carvers sell or have sold instruments to the DMC; the DMC then uses those instruments to teach their international students (primarily comprised of, but not limited to, music educators, music students, and ethnomusicologists from the United States), and the students often purchase those same instruments to take home with them at the end of their stay. Not only does the DMC serve international music-cultural tourists and gyil carvers, it also serves as an economic hub of Medie more broadly. The center employs a range of workers: musicians and dancers to teach their students, artisans to teach kente and basket weaving and to sell their product on the DMC campus, and workers for logistical and administrative tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and driving. Up until the pandemic, the center supported the Medie economy in the form of purchasing food and supplies that sustain the center on a day-to-day basis, and brought in tourists who in turn supported local bars and restaurants.
Since African rosewood does not grow naturally in the South, and because of rosewood’s scarcity, gyil carvers who supply the international market have been using material substitutes to rosewood such as prono (Mansonia altissima or mansonia). This substitute has been in place for over twenty years and is considered common practice in Accra today. Carvers still offer rosewood instruments when the material is available, and upon special request of their customers. Watch video 8 for more information about the gyil construction process in the South and perceptions of alternative materials to African rosewood by members of the gyil community.
Video 8. Alternative Gyil Key Materials (Prono for Rosewood).
Neoliberalism and the Exploitation of African Rosewood
Over the last ten years, African rosewood has seen a surge in exploitation deemed unsustainable by forest governance experts. In their article “Exploitation of African Rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus) in Ghana,” William N. Bandoh and William K. Dumenu reference several usages of rosewood, and determine that the two highest levels of utilization are for timber and fuelwood (Bandoh and Dumenu 2016). In our interview, Dumenu points to timber exploitation as the most threatening (Dumenu 2019b). In the last ten years, the demand for Ghanaian rosewood for hongmu (hardwoods used in the making of Chinese classic furniture) has dramatically increased (Treanor 2015). Treanor reports that high-quality rosewood for hongmu is still obtained from Southeast Asia; however, due to overlogging in these areas, African and Central-South American rosewoods are now increasingly exploited. Often referred to as “substitute rosewood” in the hongmu industry, Pterocarpus erinaceus is considered a lower quality rosewood, but produces a product that is affordable for people in China from broader socio-economic backgrounds. Unfortunately, the majority of timber exported for this purpose is illegal; in 2014 Chinese Customs reported 3.5 times higher values of import than Ghana’s export statistics (Treanor 2015; see also Environmental Investigation Agency 2017). African rosewood in Ghana is particularly vulnerable to illegal export since until recently the species was primarily used locally for firewood, charcoal, and other domestic purposes. When the international demand for timber suddenly increased, local actors rushed to profit from supplying logs. Lastly, salvage permits intended to limit timber consumption were ultimately obtained and abused by loggers in order to cut additional trees for export (Bandoh and Dumenu 2016).
Due to a rapid increase in African rosewood’s exploitation, local, regional, and national efforts and regulations have been enacted to slow its harvest and export with uncertain success. On August 31, 2012, a ban was placed on the harvest and export of rosewood by the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, however it was quickly lifted two months later. A second ban was put in place on July 15, 2014, although exceptions were made via the issuance of salvage permits to specific companies. In March of 2019, the Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, Kwaku Asomah-Cheremeh, called on Ghanaians to resist illegal harvesting activities, and announced a halt in the issuance of salvage permits (Dogbevi 2019). This announcement came after an increase in coverage on the subject by national media organizations such as Joy News and Ghana Business News. Local NGOs such as A Rocha have been active in calling out illegal activity and in restoration efforts (A Rocha 2019).
Because of the general ineffectiveness at the national level, and given that neighboring Sub-Saharan West African countries were experiencing similar problems with over exploitation of the species, Senegal led efforts, which Ghana and other countries supported, to place Ptercarpus erinaceus on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ (CITES) Appendix III. This allowed the international organization to assist with regulation efforts, requiring interested companies and traders to now acquire and be able to present proper CITES documentation to continue their work. The Appendix III listing was deemed ineffective, and one year later, in 2017, Pterocarpus erinaceus was moved to CITES Appendix II. Interestingly, Dumenu presents data which show that despite efforts to limit rosewood’s harvest and export through increased national and international regulations, illegal harvesting of the species in Ghana has actually increased. He makes suggestions for CITES and implementors of CITES to reduce loopholes and opportunities for forgery and corruption, to improve the effectiveness of the regulations in place. His hope is that with stronger national and international natural resource management institutions, the exploitation of African rosewood can be slowed to ensure the livelihoods of human communities in Ghana’s Savanna regions (Dumenu 2019a; Dumenu 2019b). Watch video 9 for excerpts from an interview with William K. Dumenu about rosewood exploitation in Ghana; the full interview is available here.
Video 9. William K. Dumenu Interview – Exploitation of African Rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus).
At the 2018 SEM President’s Roundtable, Aaron Allen recommended that “…ethnomusicologists … call out environmental exploitation and identify strategies for confronting neoliberalism and other destructive forms of domination.” The often-illegal harvest and export of Ghanaian rosewood for timber is a clear example of this type of neoliberal exploitation which has serious consequences for Ghana’s savanna ecosystems and the people who live in and depend on them. Dumenu suggests that rosewood exploitation would not be as concerning if international pressure were not placed on it. This does not diminish the environmental impacts of charcoal production, as rosewood is in the top five of the most preferred wood species (Dumenu 2019b). In Ghana, charcoal contributes around 60% to the energy sector although it is highly inefficient as an energy source. Also, charcoal production mostly occurs in rural communities (the Northern Region being the second largest producer), while its consumption occurs in urban centers. This reliance on charcoal presents a challenging problem for Ghana, which is why steps have been taken to begin to address it. Tropenbos Ghana, University of Copenhagen, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon collaborated on a five-year charcoal industry research project to investigate several topics such as its impacts on forest ecosystems, its connection with people’s livelihoods, and calling for more sustainable alternatives (Asante and Nketiah 2018, Baafi 2017, GNA 2017). While Ghana works to solve issues surrounding charcoal, large-scale efforts to selectively cut hardwood species such as rosewood for timber and international furniture markets present added difficulty. Rosewood can be seen as another example of exploitation in continental Africa, alongside slavery, gold or galamsey (Lee 2010), conflict minerals (Nathan and Sarkar 2010), blood diamonds (Bieri and Boli 2011), poaching and ivory (Williams 2016), and oil (Watts 2008), in which the desires of a neoliberal capitalist market outweigh national and international law, and the well-being of people and ecosystems. There is a disconnect between the benefits to those who get to consume, and the people, animals, and ecosystems which often bear the burdens of oppression, injury, death, environmental destruction, and imbalanced compensation. When it comes to the human actors within the charcoal production/distribution chain, the consequences of neoliberal overexploitation of rosewood are gendered since it is mostly women who rely on these activities for livelihood. Neoliberal markets cannot be expected to sustainably govern themselves.
While this relatively traditional form of neoliberalism is easy to identify, climate change presents a much more complicated, discreet, and potentially damaging form. After collecting over thirty years of weather data, the CSIR-Forestry Research Institute of Ghana predicts that if the current trajectory continues, rainfall will decline by 18.6%, temperatures will rise by 3.9 degrees Celsius, and sea levels will rise 34.5cm by 2050. Climate change will “…have multidimensional effects on agriculture, water, health, forests, and the economy. With regard to forests, it is anticipated that climate change will affect species composition, diversity, structure, functional processes, and ecosystem service delivery” (CSIR-FORIG 2017). Additionally, Dumenu and Obeng suggest that the savanna ecological zones are particularly vulnerable, due to people’s reliance on agriculture and forests for livelihood. Decreased and erratic rainfall will have negative impacts for farmers who rely on rainfall for their crops, likely presenting issues of food security (Dumenu and Obeng 2016; Dumenu interview 2019). Climate change is the result of increased human emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (Wuebbles et. al. 2017; Council for Scientific and Industrial Research 2017), with the major producers of these gases being the “developed,” and often Western, world (Hanley 2015; Bada 2019; Fiala 2009). As a result, Horace Campbell, the third occupant of the Kwame Nkrumah Chair in the Institute of African Studies at University of Ghana, suggests that the disconnect between the major culprits of climate change and the people and natural communities who are most vulnerable is yet another example of the exploitation of Continental Africa. In an effort to minimize vulnerability, Dumenu has assessed current adaptation strategies employed by people in Ghana’s savanna regions and has called for the implementation of local-level actions and policies to further assist people in these areas (Dumenu and Obeng 2016). It is unfair that residents of Ghana’s savanna regions will bear the burden of making substantial lifestyle adaptations when their lifestyle is not the primary cause of the unfavorable changes in climate they are experiencing.
The various value narratives of the gyil, gyil materials, and gyil ecosystems are in conflict with one another. At the local level, forest-savanna trees and bushes are connected with everyday Birifor life for domestic, recreational, and spiritual purposes and are also used in gyil construction, a Ghanaian xylophone essential to Birifor socio-cultural life. The gyil is an instrument of value for a global community of musicians, tourists, carvers, and audiences. The trees and bushes used to make gyil are also intrinsically valuable as living things, and are essential to the health of the ecosystem of which they are a part. African rosewood, the primary material used for gyil key construction, is currently under threat due to its over exploitation for international furniture markets. Rosewood conservation efforts are ongoing across the world, including regulatory efforts at international, national, regional, and local levels. Meanwhile, issues of deforestation and climate change threaten rosewood ecosystems and bring wide-ranging consequences for human and natural communities, highlighting inequities based on race, class, gender, nationality, etc. Research that considers the environment alongside music, culture, and society helps reveal the ways all these things are connected. The effort to save musical instruments made from endangered materials requires saving the ecosystems that support them. Global, systematic, and more-ecocentric lifestyle changes are needed in this fight at all levels, including the individual.
Acknowledgements and Funding
I would like to thank Mr. Tijan Dorwana, Dr. Michael Largey, Prof. Gwendolyn Dease, Dr. Jon Weber, Mrs. Judith Opoku-Boateng, and countless others for their support and guidance.
My larger project from which this article is a product was funded by two summer Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowships, one in 2016 and one in 2017, and one Fulbright-Hays DDRA from December 2018–August 2019.
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