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African harp

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Ax8a 4551 African Harps, particularly arched or "bow" harps, are found in several Sub-Saharan African music traditions, particularly in the north-east. Used from early times in Africa, they resemble the form of harps in ancient Egypt with a vaulted body of wood, parchment faced, and a neck, perpendicular to the resonant face, on which the strings are wound.

Table of contents
  1. Ancient Egyptian harps
  2. Ardin
  3. Adungu
  4. Enanga
  5. Kundi
  6. Ombi
  7. Bow harps, three types according to Wachsmann
  8. Theory, how the harp spread across Africa
  9. Names
  10. See also

Ancient Egyptian harps

The oldest depictions of harps without a forepillar can be seen adjacent to the Near East, in the wall paintings of ancient Egyptian tombs in the Nile Valley, which date from as early as 3000 BCE. These murals show an instrument that closely resembles the hunter's bow, without the pillar that we find in modern harps.

The oldest depictions of harps in Africa date back to the 4th Dynasty of Egypt (around 2500 BC). They represent the already fully developed type of bowed harp with a short spade or shovel-shaped resonance box, which presumably dates back to the 1st dynasty (beginning of the 3rd millennium) and is an independent Egyptian development. Curt Sachs (1928) recognizes the musical bow as the starting point in the gently curved arch of the man-high ancient Egyptian harp , whose attached resonating body was adapted to the lower end of the string carrier and from whose ceiling instead of one string several strings now appear in one plane up to the upper area of the support rod.

Towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period (around 1600 BC), new forms of harp appeared, above all the naviforme large bow harp, a head-high standing harp with a long, slender body that only gradually merges into the string carrier. In the Theban tomb TT367, which is dated to the reign of Amenophis II (second half of the 15th century BC), there is also a transportable, smaller, deep-arched harp of the singers (shoulder harp) and, for the first time, a small angular harp. The latter supplanted the ancient Egyptian bowed harps, which continued to exist at best in folk music or in surrounding areas. The Egyptian angular harp later made its way to West Africa, where it survived in the form of the Mauritanian ardin as the only angular harp in Africa. The portable shoulder harp played in the New Kingdom had a slender boat-shaped body and a strongly curved neck.

According to Klaus Wachsmann's (1964) theory, portable bowed harps gradually made their way from Egypt up the Nile to East Africa and, branching off from this route, also to Central and West Africa. In the south, their range hardly extends beyond the equator. It includes Uganda, the center of African bowed harps. Here, in the middle of the 20th century, 12 of 25 ethnic groups had their own harp tradition. Harps also come from the north and north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur in Sudan, South Sudan , Gabon , the Central African Republic and north Cameroonbefore. In West Africa they are restricted to areas south of Lake Chad. According to the different ways of attaching the truss rod to the body, Wachsmann differentiates between three main types of African bowed harps, which allow conclusions to be drawn about their distribution routes.


The ardin is a type of angular harp played in Mauritania. It has a resonating body made of calabash, with 10 to 16 strings and metal rings affixed to the top of the neck, and a skin belly. It is played by female griots. The neck sits loosely in the calabash bowl, held in place by the strings. The skin belly can be drummed while the strings are being plucked. The rings act as jingles.

See Adungu
The a'dungu, also called the ekidongo or ennenga, is a stringed musical instrument of the Alur people of northwestern Uganda. It is an arched harp of varying dimensions, ranging from seven to ten string or more. The instrument is made of a hollowed-out slab of wood, which is covered by two pieces of leather, woven together in the center. The upper piece of leather functions as a soundboard, and a wooden rib supports it, serving also as a structure to secure the strings to the soundboard. A curved wooden neck, containing a tuning peg for each .note, is inserted into the end of the instrument's body. The strings run diagonally from the tuning pegs in the neck to the rib in the center of the body. Tuning is not standardized, and players will usually tune by ear to each other shortly before a performance. The a'dungus are not in a particular key, and the tonality can be adapted to the preferences of the performers.


For the trough zither, see Enanga.

The ennanga, nanga, nnanga or enanga is a type of arched harp played by the Ganda people of Uganda. The sound box is made of a single piece of wood and roughly hemispherical. The top of the box is a stretched resonant membrane made of antelope skin, tied to a piece of hide at the bottom of the box. The neck is attached to the inside of the box, exits through a small round opening on the membrane, and curves upward for about 60 to 70 cm. Seven or eight strings are attached to a piece of wood inside the box, and extend through the skin to tuning pegs inserted along the neck. Sometimes small metallic rattling pieces are attached to the pegs, to color the sound. It is usually used to accompany men's singing.

Abalanga (harpist) are skilled performers and composers who work within a very structured paradigm to ensure that no two abalanga performances are the same.


The kundi is the five-string harp of the Azande and related people of Central Africa. It is an instrument traditionally played by young men and boys. A similar type of harp played by the Nzakara peoplede. The instruments are well known for their ornately carved heads. The instrument has generally fallen from popularity, though in 1993 some older players were recorded on the album Central African Republic: music of the former Bandia courts.


Gabon and Guinea have a harp called ombi or ngombi. The instrument has between 4 and 8 stings, originally made of plant fiber. Instead of winding a peg to tighten the strings, the instrument had immovable pegs, with the strings being wound around them. The body of the instrument is shaped like a trough and has a skin belly. The instrument is played by holding it against the body with the wrists and plucked.

Bow harps, three types according to Wachsmann

Organologists have analyzed the way African bow harps are put together and found three basic types.

Spoon in the cup, type 1

In the "spoon in a cup" type, the lower end of the curved neck (string carrier) lies loosely on the edge of the flat, bowl-shaped body and protrudes to about the middle of the bottom. At the height of the integument, a rod serving as a suspension bar for the strings is inserted into the neck and attached with its other end to the opposite edge of the resonance bowl. The construction, consisting of three parts, is only stable due to the tensioned strings.

This type, which occurs exclusively in Uganda, includes the ennanga of the Baganda, the ekidongo of the Nyoro , the kimasa of the Basoga, the five-stringed opuk agoya (or lotewrokuma ) of theAcholi and the tum of the Langi , also consisting of a turtle shell as a resonator . Due to the relatively limited range, Gerhard Kubik (1982) concludes that this type arrived in the region long ago and independently of the other types.

It is unclear how the "spoon in the cup" type came south through Sudan, but this probably happened before the Luo immigration to Kenya in the 16th century. Like many other Nilotic peoples, the Luo are predominantly not players of harps but of lyres (like the tom ). The oral tradition can be summarized in the case of the ennangaas far back as Kabaka Nakibinge (ruled c. 1494-1524), to whom it was played on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria.

Cork in the bottle, type 2

The image of the "cork in the bottle" for the second type describes a wooden body that has a spout-shaped opening at one end into which the lower end of the neck is inserted. This results in a solid connection. In some forms the junction is distinctly set off, forming a ridge in the outline in profile, in others the broad base has been wrapped in skin or occasionally carved as a human head.

Also known as the tanged type , it occurs in central Africa north of the equator. Typical harps are the kundi of the Azande in northern Congo , the domu of the Mangbetuin north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as in Uganda, the kinanga of the Bakonjo of the Rwenzori Mountains , the ore or orodo of the Madi in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, and the adungu of the Alur.

In general, there are considerable differences in form and playing style between the musical instruments of the Nilotic peoples of northern Uganda (including the Alur adungu ) and those of the Bantu ( Baganda ennanga , Basoga kimasa ) of southern Uganda.

Shelved type, type 3

In the third type, called the shelved type ("the type provided with a board"), the resonator has a board to which the string carrier is attached or occasionally plugged. The base board is the criterion for this type, although it can occasionally take the form of a human head.

The distribution region extends along the Atlantic Ocean from Gabon to southern Cameroon and includes two isolated occurrences in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

A bowed harp of this type is in the musicological text Syntagma musicum by Michael Praetorius(1619) pictured. In addition to a pluriarc , Plate XXXI also shows a Central African bowed harp for the first time. The representation of a body made of several boards was probably modeled on an eight-string bowed harp observed among the Kele (Bakele, Kélé -speaker) on the coast of Gabon. Portuguese sailors had landed there in 1470 and had soon established trade relations.

Gerhard Kubik (2000) concludes from Praetorius' figure that type 3 in Gabon may have evolved from type 2 well before the 17th century through the adoption of local forms in Gabon and the Congo, primarily from the Pluriarc.

Theory, how the harp spread across Africa

In 1982, Gerhard Kubik (1982) took a harp classification system devised by Klauss Wachsmann typology to show possible ways that the bow harp spread in Africa. From Egypt, the harp may have spread south up the Nile through the empire of Cush (c.600 BC - c.350 AD) and in a precursor of the "spoon in the cup" type during the course of the 1st century BC. Millennium reached the south of Uganda, from which the ennanga and their relatives later developed. The "cork in the bottle" type, to which the adungu belongs, developed from instruments that first made their way west from Kush to Lake Chad . Franz Födermayr (1969) found halfway along this route among the Bilia in the retreat area of the Ennedi mountains(in northeastern Chad) the five-string bowed harp krding. Another five-string harp on this route is the Nubian kurbi (also al-bakurbo ) of the Baggara of Darfur, reported in 1972. With the progressive drying out of the savannah, there were population shifts to the south, and this type of harp reached its present distribution area, including northwestern Uganda.

In this diffusion theory, there are some differences between the ancient Egyptian and black African bowed harps, which have moved away from them in terms of playing technique and construction: Unlike in ancient Egypt, an African harpist holds his instrument with his neck away from his body. The ancient Egyptian harps were generally believed to have fixed tuning pegs to keep the strings wrapped around the neck from slipping, but no movable tuning pegs like all contemporary African harps. When and from where the tuning pegs were first introduced is unclear.

The Alur and Acholi also call adungu or adingili a multi-stringed musical bow, which consists of a semicircular curved stick over which a cord is stretched in such a way that three Z-shaped strings with different pitches result. Adingili is a probably onomatopoeic Bantu-Timbrh language word, phonetically connected with timbili for a Cameroonian lamellophone.

According to descriptions from the first half of the 20th century, this musical bow is played by Acholi and Alur girls who place the bow staff on an inverted gourd bowl to amplify the sound. From a musical bow amplified in this way, the developmental path to the bowed harp leads via the intermediate stage of a resonator attached to the semicircular string carrier. The rare Afghan waji , classified inconsistently as a musical bow or bowed harp, has such a wooden resonator equipped with a skin cover, the strings of which are individually stretched.


African harps have many names in different languages and dialects. These include:
See also

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