THE SURVIVAL OF THE ARCHAIC ARCHED HARPS AND LYRES OF ANTIQUITY IN AFRICA TODAY

 

Of all the continents in the world, Africa is unique, as in many parts of this incredible continent, the actual lyres, harps & lutes of the ancient world are still being made & played! This ancient living musical legacy, rather like the incredibly preserved remnants of an ancient insect in amber, is about the only surviving link which still remains, to both the actual lyres and harps of antiquity and even more significantly, also their long-forgotten actual playing techniques...

 


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:

 

trois_freres3_n.jpg

 

Incredibly, the musical bow is still being played in Africa in modern times - an incredible musical legacy, stretching back in time maybe as long as 60,000 years! The African musical bow (commonly known as the Xitende) can be played either by plucking or hitting the string, either with a  gourd  resonator held against the bow or using the mouth of the player as a resonator, or without any resonator - just holding the bow against the ground.

 


MUSIC OF THE SAN BUSHMAN

 

Recent genetic research has revealed that the genetically most diverse and therefore the oldest ancestors of all the modern human races on Earth today, are the San Bushmen (also known as the Basarwa) of the Kalahari Desert, Namibia and Botswana, South Africa. It was the Mesolithic ancestors of the San, who migrated from Africa between 70,000 - 50,000 years  ago, and as testified through their DNA), the San people are the original Africa ancestors of all modern humans, from whom every other human race on the planet today is descended from! It was the  ancestors of the San Bushmen who eventually replaced the Neanderthal populations of humanity, whose earlier African hominid ancestors  in turn, also migrated from Africa, hundreds of thousands of years earlier.

 

It therefore follows that the wonderfully diverse culture of the San must be one of the oldest on the planet!  The music of the San could therefore be a precious remnant, of the first music ever created by modern humans  - and part of their incredibly ancient musical culture includes the playing of the musical bow.

 

In  the fascinating video below, a San Elder uses a percussive style of playing the musical bow, holding a melon against the bow to act as a resonator... 

 

 

  

 

 

A CD which attempts to capture this incredible music is available from the following website:

http://www.bushmanmusicinitiative.org

 

"Recorded in three Bushman villages in western Botswana, this CD includes the intense and fascinating vocal music of the sacred "trance dances" alongside intimate, meditative instrumental selections. The extensive album notes include color photos, background information on the Bushman race, personal notes on the musicians and their songs, and an unprecedented analysis of the system on which Bushman music functions—the "theory" of Bushman music."
(quoted from the Bushman Music Initiative Website). The incredible music of the San can also be download from Bandcamp:


 
For further fascinating information on the incredibly ancient living musical legacy of the San people, please see:

 
http://www.musicearth.name/organology/musical-instruments-of-the-bushmen/ 

 

San-playing-bow-2.jpg  



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)...


 





THE ORIGIN OF THE ARCHAIC AFRICAN LYRES AND ARCHED HARPS STILL PLAYED THROUGHOUT AFRICA TODAY?


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.
 

Thankfully, in many parts of the African continent, particularly Ethiopia Eritrea, Uganda & Kenya, the lyre of antiquity was not replaced, and a precious remnant of the lyre-playing techniques and the actual sounds of the lyres of antiquity, have been amazingly preserved! 

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.

 

BEER, AFRICA, AND THE LYRE OF THE ANCIENT SUMERIANS? 


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... 

 
"I think I have another bit of evidence that the lyre got to Africa from Ur or elsewhere in Mesopotamia or Israel. It has to do with beer.

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:
 
 
which has a picture way to the bottom of a group of Kenyans around a common beer pot with a bunch of reeds. Finding two such distinct cultural artifacts together is probably pretty good evidence for a common origin"

 

sumerian_image2.gif

 

 

Mdrinkbeer.gif

 

The more I dig, the more fascinating evidence of these strands of ancient cross-cultural connections can be found - the Ancient Legacy of the Lyre, in Africa, lives on...

 

EXAMPLES OF ARCHAIC AFRICAN LYRES AND ARCHED HARPS STILL PLAYED TODAY


THE ETHIOPIAN BEGENA
 


 
The most fascinating of all the African lyres, according to Ethiopian folklore, this lyre was brought to Ethiopa (along with the Ark of the Covenant!), by Menelik I - none other than one of the sons of King Solomon himself, following his marriage to the fabled Ethiopian Queen of Sheba!

The most intriguing aspect of this bass lyre which seems to support this incredible folklore, is its' 10 strings - exactly the same number of strings used on the Biblical Kinnor (as described in both the Biblical text and further verified in the writing of the 1st century Jewish Historian, Flavius Josephus). I discuss this in greater depth in the "Biblical Lyres" section of this website. 
 
  
THE ENDONGO LYRE OF UGANDA

 

image011.jpg

 

Special thanks, to "leftyseargent" again, for the following gems of information about this fascinating African Lyre, which appears to be very similar to the Ancient Greek chelys (tortoise shell form) lyre: 

"The Edongo [sometimes spelt Ndongo], is a Royal Court instrument of the Baganda people of Uganda.  It is constructed rather like the Asherroo of Somalia, with the posts inserted through the covering skin from the top.
 
The Banganda people are not sure where it came from, but it employs leather straps to hold the strings like a traditional Ethiopian Begena, rather than tuning pegs like the typical Udungu or most Egyptian instruments"
 

THE BAGANDA & BASOGA LYRE OF UGANDA
 
This lyre appears very similar to the Baganda & Basoga Lyres of Uganda. Here is some fascinating information about these lyres, which I found at:
 
 

"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"

harpish.jpg


More information can also be found at:


http://www.dambe.org/education.html
 
 

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 OBUKANO LYRE FROM KENYA 

  
 


THE LITUNGU LYRE FROM KENYA 

 
 
 

 

THE NYATITI LYRE FROM KENYA

 

  
 
THE SHERRARA LYRE FROM SOMALIA

  

 

 




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!




 

LIVE LYRE CONCERTS

  • 07/01/2017
    Here Come the Romans! - Yate, Bristol
     

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