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Musical Instrument Museum, Part 6

Continuing our musical tour of Africa, we begin with Kenya on the East coast. Kenyan musical instruments are as varied as the region's mix of nomadic pastoralists, Bantu cultures and the coastal Swahili.

Rich in vocal traditions, nomadic tribes such as the Maasai and Turkana avoid bulky instruments. Instead they favor animal horns, flutes and jingling attire and jewelry activated by the movement of their dances. This provides rhythmic accompaniment to songs.

Cultures in the west are renowned for their lyres, such as the Luo nyatiti and the Kiisi obokano. Virtuosic one-stringed fiddle traditions stretch across the nation and include the Mijikenda mbeveve (pictured here) and Tharaka wandindi further east. Ritual drumming is widespread throughout Kenya. Double-reed pipes such as the nzumari, which spread from the Arabian Peninsula along the Indian Ocean trade routes, are popular among the coastal Swahili and the Mijikenda people.


Zambians produce a rich array of extraordinary and beautiful music that springs from the traditional belief systems of the country's various ethnic groups.

The Lozi of the Western Province are best known for their silimba gourd-resonated xylophone and the Lunda of the North-Western Province for their ndamba scraper. The Bemba cinkumbi royal drums from the Northern Province are also impressive.

In the Southern Province, the budima (goblet) drums of the Valley Tonga (pictured to the left) are used specifically for funeral ceremonies and are virtually unknown outside the Tonga area.

The drumheads for small budima drums are made from a cow or an antelope hide, while those for the large drums are made from elephant ears. Beeswax is smeared on the large drums to deepen the tone.


In 1941, a Portuguese delegation visited a king in what is now Angola and wrote about hearing ivory trumpets.

The instruments in the 17th century paintings and writings of two Italian monks are still played today and carry the same indigenous names.

The Chokwe, Congo and Lunda peoples live in bordering regions of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and share many of the same kinds of instruments. Among the most important are lamellaphones known as likembe or kisanji. Particularly in Central Africa, such lamellaphones are often beautifully carved with geometric figures or human faces, rendering them art pieces.

Equally ornate are many local drums such as the Chokwe mukupiel (shown here).


Music is not only for entertainment, it also bridges the physical and magical worlds.

During curing ceremonies, healers use the music of instruments such as metal bells and rattles to treat illness. It is believed that their penetrating sounds help drive out the harmful forces that cause sickness. Similarly, healers play ceremonial music that serves to protect healthy people from falling ill.

Healers and magicians possess the ability to communicate with those who inhabit the spiritual realm. During rituals, they use music and chants to attract the attention of spirits. Certain instruments such as harps carved in human form, help call the spirits forth. Spiritual practitioners serve as links between the earthly and the supernatural — to protect people from malevolent forces.


The structure of musical instruments seems to have no limits --- only that of the imagination. We are used to cylindrical drums with animal skins over the opening, hit with sticks. Here we find a nemandru or slit drum composed of wood and textile. Different but I would venture to guess equally effective.


This fine instrument is a kundi or arched harp from the Zande people. It was curious to me because it almost looks like an instrument half way between a guitar-like lute and a five-string harp.


Pictured to the right is a rattle from the Lulua people. It was constructed of gourds and cord. It was worn around the waist and I assume provided its music when the wearer danced. I would have loved to see and hear it demonstrated.


Here is another slit drum but how different in concept and execution from the one above. This one is from the Ndengese people.


The lyre, played throughout Sudan, migrated from the Middle East through Saharan Africa and into sub-Saharan Africa.

Northern kisir lyres are often played for dance, while those in the south, such as the tom lyre (shown here), accompany bardic poetry and praise songs.

The largest country in Africa, Sudan is divided north and south by the Sahara Desert and east and west by the Nile River. The Islamic Arabs of the north use drums such as noba to accompany religious music. Apart from the lyre, the eastern Sudanese Arabs play one-stringed umkiki fiddle, the kurbi harp and a variety of drums. Groups in the southern Sudan are known for ensembles of one-pitched wind instruments such as the now-rare Bongo mandjindji and Dinka side-blown trumpets.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with this lyre --- one of my favorite instruments in the entire museum. The ornamentation is outstanding.


Although separate countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea share much music and culture.

In traditional Ethiopian society, the instrument that one plays reflects social standing. Azmari minstrels occupy a low social class and accompany their songs on the masenqo spike fiddle, while aristocratic men play the beganna lyre (pictured here). It was constructed of wood and cow skin. One question that often went through my mind with instruments such as this lyre is how could the musician tune it accurately and maintain the pitch of each string. I know how challenging that can be on a modern guitar and it would appear to be even more so for these instruments.

Another lyre, the krar, is played by both men and women to accompany secular ballads and love songs. Shepherds favor the washint notched flute, while nagarit kettle drums symbolize the authority of kings, emperors and governors.

The music of the Coptic Orthodox Church holds a special place in the country and traces back to the 5th century. It is essentially vocal music accompanied by a maqwamiya prayer stick, kabaro kettle drum, sanasel sistrum and a small quatchel rattle. Singing is always accompanied by rhythmic movement and hand clapping.


Large, heavy instruments are not prominent among nomadic pastoral peoples in Somalia and Djibouti. Their instruments tend to be small and serve dual purposes.

The uul functions as a walking stick and the maqar as a sleeping mat, yet in dances the stick is stamped percussively on the mat. Similarly, kor (camel) and shalaq (goat) bells accompany dance and song.

Among the southern Somali Bantu, whose ancestors were brought as slaves in the 19th century from what is now Tanzania, drums were more prominent, including different kinds of durbaan.

Much Somali music is interwoven with a rich poetic traditional dealing with politics, war, love and loss. Although poetry is usually spoken or sung without instruments, drums accompany some genres, as do the kaban lyre and arched harp.


Rwanda and Burundi originated as two ancient kingdoms in Africa's Rift Valley.

These two countries are home to three main ethnic groups --- the Tutsi, the Hutu and the Twa --- who share the same language. They also share related cultures and economies based on agriculture and raising cattle.

Once the ruling caste of cattle owners, the Tutsi kings fostered several court musical traditions, including bardic poet-singers accompanying themselves on the inanga zither and Intore royal dancers performing with small amayugi bells. A traditional style of court ensemble music was played on variously sized ingoma drums (pictured here), insengo whistles and amakondera trumpets. Since the abolition of the monarchy in the 1960s, this type of ensemble music has become more popular in the region.


Pictured here is an endongo or bowl lyre from the Ganda people who inhabit the area north and northwest of Lake Victoria in south-central Uganda. The instrument is constructed of wood, monitor lizard skin, cow tail and string.


The music of Chad is as richly varied as the country's landscape, which ranges from the Sahara Desert in the north to the forests and wetlands of the south.

Northern Chad is known for its drums and stringed instruments, often played by professional musicians. the Kanembu people, who live in the region surrounding Lake Chad, play drums such as the double-headed ganga, which is often accompanied by rhythms played on bowls, spoons, bottles and other everyday objects. Pictured here is a gikendi harp-lute constructed of gourd, animal skin, wood, shells, cord and nylon.

In southern Chad, drums accompany other instruments such as xylophones, including the kundu, played by the Sara people. These xylophones sometimes have extra membranes made of fish bladders and bat wings to create additional buzzing sounds.

To be continued...

Life is good.

Aloha,
B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com