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 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:
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.
"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:
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:
"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 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"
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!