John Dankwa

Mourning the Dead, Healing the Living: Gyil Music in Funeral Ceremonies of the Dagara in Northwestern Ghana


In Dagara society of northwestern Ghana funerals are significant social events. The occasion offers families the platform to mourn their deceased member in accordance with Dagara traditional, religious, and cultural practices. Significant in the organization and performance of the funeral is the gyil, a wooden framed pentatonic xylophone. Gyil music is the vehicle that drives the symbolic acts that validates the funeral as a public event. The genre performed for the funeral is called kuurbine, an instrumental music accompanied with dirges. Without kuurbine music, the Dagara would say “there is no funeral, no grief, and no death.” For the Dagara, the value of kuurbine music lies in its ability to stimulate weeping, an essential requirement for all funeral attendants. Not only does weeping constitutes a communal endorsement of the deceased person but also facilitates the transition of the soul to the world of the ancestors. Drawing on participant observation of Dagara funerals in northwestern Ghana, this paper examines kuurbine music as a meaningful aspect of Dagara funeral ceremonies. It explores how kuurbine music, beyond the normative role of accompanying funeral proceedings, enables the community to express grief by weeping. The paper argues that weeping in Dagara funerals is the most significant means through which loss is tamed and assimilated into a form with which one can live. Unexpressed emotions over death, the Dagara maintain, is dangerous to the health of the individual, therefore, the use of kuurbine music to “crack open that part of the self that holds grieve under control.” Stimulating people to unleash their feelings towards death, the music ensures a systematic and positive adjustment to human loss. In that regard, kuurbine music is considered a healing mechanism and a crucial means of managing bereavement in Dagara society.


John Dankwa is an assistant professor of music at Wesleyan University, Middletown. He is an ethnomusicologist and performer who specializes in African music. His performance area ranges from West African traditional drumming to African pop and art music. Dankwa’s current research focuses on Dagara xylophone music tradition in northwestern Ghana. His book-in-progress, When the Gyil Speaks, is a study of meaning in Dagara xylophone music. Based on extensive fieldwork in the Nandom Traditional Area in northwestern Ghana, Dankwa’s work examines how a single instrument and the music it performs can be invested with so much meaning in the cultural matrix within which it operates. Currently, John Dankwa is the director of the West African Drumming and African Pop Music ensembles at Wesleyan. He is also the music director of the Association of Ghana Methodist Church Choirs, North American Mission Diocese (USA and Canada).



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