Dagar Gyil Ensemble of Lawra Credit: Courtesy of Sublime Frequencies

First things first. The gyil is a traditional West African xylophone with dried gourd resonators hung below most or all of its hardwood keys. (A similar instrument is called a “balafon” in Francophone Africa.) It’s usually tuned pentatonically, and its full, luminous tone is haloed with a cicada-like buzz, created by vibrating membranes made from spiders’ egg cases and pasted over small holes cut in each resonator. If you saw Badenya—La Freres Coulibaly at the African Festival of the Arts in 2001 or SK Kakraba at the World Music Festival in 2016, you already know what one looks like.

This album of Dagar gyil music was recorded on December 11, 2019, by Hisham Mayet of Seattle label Sublime Frequencies, in the Ghanaian village of Lawra, near the border with Burkina Faso. The Dagara people belong to a cluster of ethnic groups occupying northwest Ghana and neighboring areas of Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, and they traditionally play paired gyile, accompanied by hand drummers. To assemble this ensemble, led by Vi-ireh Dong, Mayet enlisted master musician Aaron Bebe Sukura, who plays second gyil on the last half of the recording. They use two 14-key logyile and two drums: a large gourd-bodied kuor with a head of monitor-lizard skin and a smaller clay-pot dalari. The Dagara people consider the gyil a vehicle of connection between the community and the spirit world, and the creation of an instrument destined for this sacred role is accompanied by rituals and offerings from the moment the builder chooses which tree to cut to make it. The two mesmerizing instrumental medleys on this 40-minute album draw from repertoires that accompany funerals, weddings, dances, celebrations of birth, and even social drinking at the taverns locally called cabarets.

At many Dagar gyil performances, the audience circles the musicians, dancing and adding hocketing hand claps, and if they recognize a melody, they sing the lyrics. I can pick out melodies here, but because I’m only any good at parsing rhythms in Western music, almost everything else breaks my brain in an excellent way. The drums maintain blistering flurries of notes, while the logyile engage in a complicated mutual orbit with a much slower metabolism, occasionally developing a clear division between vamp and lead. Superficially, the result sometimes sounds like several distinct tempos and time signatures running simultaneously, but close listening has persuaded me that everyone is keeping to one pulse—the music is constructed so the various rhythms often feel like unrelated streams. Patterns of different lengths phase past each other, and one players’ downbeat might be another’s upbeat; sometimes three beats for the drums equals four for the logyile. In the liner notes, Sukura says the second half of the album stays in 4/4, and I can tell it does—but it’s still hard for me to hold a consistent meter in my head when the medley makes its leaps. This is trance music, but it hypnotizes you with multiplicity and fluidity, not just with repetition. It suspends you among its rhythms, because whenever you follow one you’re tugged toward the others. Even if you’re not already dancing, it feels like levitating.

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. You can also follow him on Twitter.