Enemy Music: Blind Birifor Xylophonists of Northwest Ghana
Doctor of Philosophy in Ethnomusicology
University of California, Los Angeles, 2011
Professor Cheryl L. Keyes, Chair
The heartland of xylophone music in Ghana lies not in the coastal regions where drum ensembles proliferate, but far to the north and west of the country spilling over into Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. This area, which includes the Northern Region and Upper-West Region of Ghana, is home to several distinct ethnic groups that maintain traditions of xylophone performance.
Featured in public ritual contexts such as funerals and festivals, xylophones are a primary cultural icon and instrumental resource for these ethnic groups. The North as a whole has also been the location of Ghana’s worst epidemics of disease borne blindness, largely caused by the vast river network of the Black Volta, in which the parasite responsible for river blindness (Onchocerca volvulus) thrives.
Both blind and sighted xylophonists of the Birifor ethnic group of Northwest Ghana play the deep and raspy kogyil (funeral xylophone), usually in the context of public multi-day funeral ceremonies. In these ceremonies xylophonists as musical ritual specialists negotiate social, cultural, spiritual, and ideological relationships critically remaking culture, history, and the self through songs of new and old.
For most Birifor xylophonists their role as musical ritual specialist leads to rampant jealousy within a local culture of competition and suspicion, making them targets for malicious gossip, witchcraft (suoba), and the misfortune and psychological stress associated with them. However, for blind Birifor xylophonists the social perception of their minds, bodies, and music through a preexisting cultural ideology of ability leads to a compound form of subordination, which relegates their achievements to witchcraft and marginalizes them from Birifor communities.
While the social and physical models of disability recognized in western scholarship persist in rural Birifor culture, they are encapsulated within a previously untheorized spiritual model of disability that labels the disabled body as the necessary result of corrupting spiritual forces. Confronting the compound subordination of musicianship and disability in Birifor communities, blind Birifor xylophonists identify, critique, and contest the locations of disability by composing and performing enemy music (dondomo yiel), a compositional sub-genre of Birifor funeral music.
Drawing from ethnomusicological fieldwork conducted in Birifor communities in 2002, 2007, and 2009, this dissertation chronicles the lives and music of blind and sighted Birifor xylophonists, amplifying the social and cultural critiques in their music, and theorizing the inner workings of disability, speech surrogation, and historical memory in Birifor contexts.