Acquisition of the sanza collection of François and Françoise Boulanger-Bouhière


Left : Saskia Willaert, curator African instruments at the mim.
Right : Alexandre Girard-Muscagorry, in charge of non-western music and cultures at the Musée de la Musique in Paris.

The sanza collection of François and Françoise Boulanger-Bouhière

The Boulanger-Bouhière collection is an internationally renowned reference collection, consisting of nearly 600 African sanzas. It represents the numerous different types existing all over sub-Saharan Africa. The instruments have been collected by the Belgian engineer François Boulanger and his wife Françoise Bouhière over more than fifty years.

Because of the sheer volume of the collection, the collection has been equally divided between the mim and Musée de la musique (Cité de la musique - Philharmonie de Paris). The mim has obtained its part as a permanent loan from the King Baudouin Foundation.

Not only is the collection a very valuable acquisition for display, it is also an extremely rich source for research because of its richness, diversity and documentation. As a whole it provides a large and fascinating overview of a once important African tradition, closely linked with the history of Belgian / European contact with African musical cultures.

After having spent some years doing civil service in Congo at the end of the 1960s, François Boulanger started collecting sanzas which he bought at flea markets, antique shops and prominent African art galleries in Belgium and in France, as well as from Belgian ex-colonials. Together with his wife, he collected an important African musical patrimony which by the end of the 1960s had disappeared from the continent's daily music life. Over a period of more than fifty years they succeeded in assembling abundant testimonies of this fascinating tradition, mainly in Belgium.

Not only the diversity of the collection is remarkable, also the quality of the pieces is exceptional, most of them are fully-fledged museum objects.

François Boulanger has also dedicated a lot of time to the documentation of the collection. Each of the instruments has been carefully described based on the main organological classifications of sanzas. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the collector produced a detailed and richly illustrated personal catalogue, mentioning the geographic origin, typology and provenance of each piece. This meticulous inventory was later replaced by the "Sanza Blog", a website François Boulanger created to present his acquisitions and the history of lamellophones as well as other African musical instruments. Gathering a unique iconographic documentation (colonial photographs or postcards, exhibition views, etc.), this blog is still regarded as a precious resource by African art collectors and scholars and has contributed to the international fame of the Boulanger-Bouhière collection. On the occasion of two major exhibitions dedicated to the collection in 2011 and 2012 (see annex), two catalogues were also published, presenting a significant number of sanzas.

African sanzas

zigua 1.JPGSanzas or lamellophones rely on the universally known principle of producing sound by fixing one side of a lamella (also called key) and flexing and releasing the other. Sub-Saharan Africa has known musical instruments consisting of a series of lamellae attached to a resonating body for centuries. Having their origin in two distinct and distant parts, the Cameroon savannah and the area around the lower Zambezi River, these lamellophones have subsequently spread over the continent and today can be found in almost every black African community, in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the slave trade has also led to the dissemination of lamellophones in several areas of Latin America (Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, etc.) where its practice is still very vivid.

African lamellophones are entirely handmade. The player holds the instrument in both hands and depresses the keys with his thumbs or his fingers, producing one tone per key. The keys are arranged according to the fingering of the local melodies. The instrument is never complete without buzzing devices: vibrating and rattling objects made out of metal, shell, glass, wood or stone. With no more than a handful of notes lamellophone players produce music that can be relaxing, call for rain, make people dance or ancestors talk.

Because of the lack of any similar musical instrument outside Sub-Saharan Africa, Western travellers from the seventeenth century on called the lamellophones they encountered 'thumb harp', 'nail violin', 'thumb piano', 'kaffer keyboard', 'hand piano', 'pianino' or 'finger piano'. David Livingstone mentioned a 'sansa' in his recordings of his travels alongside the lower Zambezi River in July 1860. It was a misnomer for the instrument of the Nyungwe and Mananja people of Mozambique ('nsansi'), but by his authority, Livingstone unknowingly made 'sansa' the generally accepted term for all African lamellophones. It was not until 1965 that the more neutral, scientific term 'lamellophone' was introduced by German ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik. African names for the instrument abound and are in fact as numerous as there are types and peoples.

Almost each type is represented by beautiful examples in the Boulanger-Bouhière collection, ranging from spectacular anthropomorphic Tabwa lamellophones to little-known exemplars from West Africa or northern Democratic Republic of Congo. To discuss all the types present in the Boulanger-Bouhière collection would take many pages. We select some of the most important ones. Apart from illustrating the rich musical patrimony of Africa, they also tell about the impact of contact between Africa and Europe over the centuries through the introduction or recycling of European materials (beads, upholstery nails, tin cans, coins, beer caps, umbrella ribs, etc.). The illustrations refer to instruments from the Boulanger-Bouhière collection.

Raffia types from the Niger delta

cameroun (4).JPGIn an area stretching from the Niger delta, over the Cameroon savannah, Gabon, Northern Congo to Northern Angola, lamellophones were known long before the arrival of the Europeans. To this day the keys of the lamellophones in these regions are made of the core nerves of raffia vinifera or bamboo plants, both very common in the local flora. Raffia type lamellophones along with the Bantu migrations spread across the central and south-eastern parts of the continent. In original raffia instruments two large, hollowed out raffia stalks were fixed together. Wax balls are applied for tuning, the size of the balls determining the pitch.


02 mim 13 (15).JPGThe oldest instruments with iron lamella most probably come from the lower Zambesi region. Zimbabwe has a thousand-year-old tradition of iron technology and undoubtedly a history of iron key lamellophones which is as old. The mbira is the instrument of the ancestors. When perfectly tuned, the keys produce many rich overtones. Together with the buzzers, they have an emotional effect on the player and his audience, creating a sense of drama as they recall the voices of the ancestors. Melodic fragments and rhythm patterns are repeated while being slightly modified. The player and his audience get into a trance and dance for hours. During decades the white people of Rhodesia suppressed the use of this 'Kaffir piano'. The rise in popularity of the Zezuru mbira during the war of independence (1966-1980) has been explained by black nationalism. Because of its balance of accessible qualities and exoticism, mbira music was quickly welcomed in Western world music circles.

Tabwa lamellophone

sanza 01.JPGluba 01.jpg The lamellophones of the Tabwa people from East-Congo have eight keys, divided in two small keyboards and attached on a fan-shaped sound board. The arrangement of eight descending and ascending keys are to be found in many lamellophone types of Central and Southern Africa, it also forms the base of the mbira keyboard.


The sculpted head which faces the musician are there to inspire him and direct his play. Because of the often beautiful sculpted heads, facing the musician while he plays to inspire him and direct his play, they have become attractive collector's items.


IMG_3865.JPGIMG_3869.JPGThe likembe appeared at the end of the 19th century in Southern Congo. Their introduction is linked with the period of colonisation. It was the instrument of the porters who accompanied expeditions and trade missions, and of day labourers in search for work in the plantations, mines, ports and towns. The likembe helps the user pass the time on long marches, it strikes the cadence, hence the expression: 'the likembe carries you'. The instrument spread all over central Africa and became a familiar sound to colonials in the hours of repose before sleeping. The resonance box of the instrument is hollowed out from one side. Small stones, dried beans or pieces of glass are placed in the inside. The resonance box is then closed by a small piece of wood and sealed with black wax. Western objects are often incorporated into the construction of likembes: blue glass beads attached to the keys, the resonance box decorated with brass furniture nails and coins. The player shakes the instrument to activate the buzzers inside the instrument. The traditional likembe has practically disappeared with the advent of motorised transport, the portable radio and the guitar. Today an electrically amplified version is gaining great popularity.

Loango type

bas-congo (2).JPG Loango is a small coastal village situated north of Pointe Noire in the Congo Brazzaville. From the 16th century, European ships landed here during their trade in slaves and picked up people for deportation to the New World. The impact of these events on the local people is illustrated in the boat form of their lamellophone. The red seed in the top of the instrument symbolizes the evil eye.


Kisansi and mucapata

2 sanza chopi mozambique (4).JPGFrom the 16th century Portuguese travellers engaged in an intensive trade with the African heartland between Angola and Mozambique. Black porters and scouts who accompanied these pombeiros in their trans-African journeys played the mbira and nsansi. As a result of contact with these musicians the Chokwe people of Angola developed two types of lamellophones, the kisansi and the mucapata. Kisansis have keys which splay out at the players end and a board-shaped sound box, referring to the mbira dza vadzimu. They spread along trade routes towards the Congo. Striking geometric patterns and sometimes faces are engraved into the board.

Mucapatas call into mind the nsansi seen by Livingstone near the lower Zambesi river. The zigzag-arrangement of the keys is also found in the raphia-lamellophones of the neighbouring Pende people of the Congo. Mucapatas have become rare instruments.



Boulanger's blog: and, which provides ample information about the provenance of the instruments before becoming part of the Boulanger-Bouhière collections

Gerhard Kubik, Kalimba-Nsansi-Mbira. Lamellophone in Afrika, Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde, 1998

Saskia Willaert, unpublished guide to the exhibition 'Tuned Raindrops', MIM Brussels, September - December 2005

Françoise Barrier, "François Boulanger. Chronicle of a Sanza Collector", Tribal Art Magazine, 2011, p. 120-121:

"'Sanza'. Exposition des lamellophones de la collection F. & F. Boulanger-Bouhière", exhibition catalogue, Bruneaf, Brussels, 8-12 June, 2011

"Sanza: African Thumb Pianos from the Collections of F. & F. Boulanger-Bouhiere, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, and MIM", exhibition catalogue, MIM Phoenix, Arizona, 2012