THE SURVIVAL OF THE ARCHAIC ARCHED HARPS AND LYRES OF ANTIQUITY IN AFRICA TODAY
THE MESOLITHIC MUSICAL BOW
The Mesolithic ancestor of both the harp & lyre, was the basic musical bow. This is basically the archaic archery bow, on which musical tones can be produced, either by plucking or striking the string of the bow, using either the ground or a gourd held against the chest as a resonator. From the first pictorial evidence so far discovered, the musical bow has been played since at least 15,000 BCE, but could date back to the Mesolithic Era, around 60,000 BCE, when the archery bow was probably first invented! Below is a delightful video I recently found, which demonstrates how the the musical bow was played:
The very earliest cave etching of a musician dates back to about 15,000 BCE, from engravings on the right-hand side wall in the cave of Les Trois Frères at Le Tuc d'Audoubert, Montesquieu-Avantes, Ariège, French Pirénées, and seems to show a dancer dressed in animal skins, playing a musical bow by using his mouth as a resonator - one of the techniques used to play the musical bow still practiced in Africa today:
MUSIC OF THE SAN BUSHMAN
(quoted from the Bushman Music Initiative Website). The incredible music of the San can also be download from Bandcamp:
TECHNIQUES FOR PLAYING THE MUSICAL BOW
These next two videos demonstrate the plucked & percussive techniques of playing the African musical bow, the second video showing how the mouth of the player can be used as a resonator (the same playing technique which also appears to be depicted in the cave etching from 15,000 BCE)...
By around 1000 CE in the West, the lyre was totally replaced, not by the even more ancient harp, but by the evolution of more versatile string instruments with a fingerboard - the fingerboard meant less strings were required, and a greater range of pitches became available, in contrast to the open strings of the lyre. The last lyres played in Europe were the Anglo Saxon Lyres of the kind found at Sutton Hoo, as will described in detail later in this section of the website.
The amazing fact is, that the incredibly diverse selection of archaic lyres and arched harps still performed throughout the African continent today, are a living tradition dating back literally thousands of years, when they were presumably introduced via the many ancient trade routes which linked Africa to the rest of the ancient world.
An example of this, would be the trade route for gold, between ancient Egypt and Nubia (today known as Northern Sudan). Egypt, part of the African continent, was in turn linked via other trade routes with the rest of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean - it was via these network of ancient trade routes, linking so many far flung lands during antiquity, that saw so many cross-cultural exchanges of ideas - which almost inevitably, also included musical ones.
As well as via ancient trade routes between Africa and the ancient world, another really interesting route that the lyres and archaic arched harps of antiquity found their way into Africa, may well have something to do with beer!
One of my YouTube Channel subscribers (by the handle of "leftysergeant") passed on this remarkable gem of information to me, regarding evidence of ancient cross-cultural influences between Mesopotamia and Africa, which may suggest a Mesopotamian origin of the lyre in or around Ur, in Sumeria, and why thousands of years later, the lyre is still being played in many parts of the African continent to this very day...
The Sumerians drank beer through a straw. I do not see any sign of this practice from Egypt. I did, however, stumble across several references to it, and saw one YouTube video (which I cannot now retrieve) referring to the practice in Kenya and others of the Swahili States, all of which also have the lyre in some form.
If you Google "kaffir beer" you will come across this site:
EXAMPLES OF ARCHAIC AFRICAN LYRES AND ARCHED HARPS STILL PLAYED TODAY
THE ETHIOPIAN BEGENA
THE BAGANDA & BASOGA LYRE OF UGANDA
"The Baganda and the Basoga lyre is made of lizard skin and laced with to a non-sonorous skin in the same manner as the harp and drums.
The strings are tied into a piece of wood and inserted into a hole where the two arms meet of the lyre meet. The 'Ganda lyre' (endongo) has one hole, the 'Soga instrument (entongoli) has two pieces of cloth, barkcloth or banana fibers wrapped around the yoke. The strings are wound round and round this material until it acts as a tuning peg.
The strings on the bowl lyre are not arranged in progressive order, as they are on the arched harp and the zither.
The highest note in the scale is third from the left and the lowest, fifth. Strings 7, 2, 4, 1 and 5 are octaves"
More information can also be found at:
VIDEOS OF THE LYRES STILL BEING MADE & PLAYED IN AFRICA TODAY
The final selection of videos below testifies to this unique phenomenon, and for me, the survival of the ancient lyre-playing techniques in East Africa provides a tantalizing taste of how the music of the ancient world, was actually played...
THE NYATITI LYRE FROM KENYA
LEARNING FROM THE ANCIENT LYRE PLAYING TECHNIQUES STILL PLAYED IN AFRICA TODAY
In my efforts to recreate the sound and playing techniques of antiquity, as well as searching for both ancient descriptions of lyre players and ancient illustrations of lyre players, I have also incorporated many fascinating techniques I have learnt from studying videos of African lyre players - the most fascinating aspect of these techniques, is that they are literally a living tradition dating back to antiquity, when these wonderfully archaic lyres and arched harps were first introduced into Africa during ancient times along the many ancient trade routes, and have remained there, ever since.
RHYTHMIC STYLES OF LYRE PLAYING
Some of my more recent experiments in lyre playing techniques feature using the heavier mass of my replica ancient Greek carved bone plectrum to also beat rhythm on the skin, soundboard or frame of my replica ancient Greek lyres, in addition to using the plectrum for plucking or strumming the actual strings:
Evidence for such rhythmic lyre playing techniques can be seen in performances of traditional Alur music, in the performance of ensembles of the Ugandan Adungu - a type of archaic arched harp with a soundboard of taut leather stretched over the resonator; exactly the same construction as the ancient Egyptian shoulder harp (from which I am almost certain the Adungu is directly derived from):
THE UGANDAN ADUNGU:
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIAN SHOULDER HARP:
In the video below, the singer sits on the bass Adungu at beats rhythm with a large baton on the skin of the instrument and simultaneously taps rhythm with his hands on the sides of the instrument whilst it is being played by another performer:
Another incidental ancient lyre and harp playing technique which can clearly be seen, is that of 'string pinching' in order to create subtle accidentals/microtones during the performance - notice how the main Adungu performer quickly raises his left arm throughout the performance to pinch a specific string (shortening its vibrating length thus briefly raising its pitch).
Almost exactly the same technique is clearly illustrated in this picture below of an ancient Egyptian harpist, whose raised arm is in virtually the same position as the modern Adungu player - indeed, it would make no sense for a player to be conventionally plucking the string using this rather awkward position:
It is also possible that the ancient Egyptian harpist above, may be performing the very similar ancient harp and lyre technique of lightly stopping the string at a specific node on its length in order to produce harmonics with one hand. This technique entails lightly stopping a string just above the knuckle of the index finger at the precise node where the harmonic point lies whilst almost simultaneously plucking the string with the thumb - at the same time releasing the string from the index finger in order to let the harmonic ring out. This rather initially complicated technique is explained very well in the video below, by the harpist Josh Layne:
In another video, this time featuring the Kenyan Nyatiti, the player also performs rhythm on this lyre by tapping the arms of the instrument with a metal ring worn on his toe, in addition to wearing bells on his foot:
THE BLOCK AND STRUM TECHNIQUE
There is an ancient lyre playing technique of blocking specific strings with the left hand, whilst strumming the required remaining open strings with the plectrum in the right hand. This technique can clearly be seen in ancient illustrations of ancient Greek kithara players:
This same technique survives to the present day in Africa, where it can most clearly be heard and seen in the playing techniques of the Krar - a lyre from Eritrea:
THE TREMOLO TECHNIQUE
I derive the tremolo technique I incorporate into my own lyre playing, from the plectrum plucked tremolo used to play the Simsimiyya - a lyre traditionally played by in Egypt:
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE GLORIOUS ANCIENT MUSICAL LIVING TRADITIONS OF AFRICA
The lyres of antiquity are indeed still a living tradition throughout the African continent - it is my own musical mission to make the recreated lyres of antiquity and the wonderfully exotic and evocative ancient musical modes and intonations which were once played on them, a new living tradition in the dull, sterile, monotonously standardised, soulless music with which we have become so frighteningly familiar with in the decidedly not-so-superior, modern Western world!