Zande, Doruma, Uele, Congo
mim inv. no. 3222
Gift from Alphonse Vermandele, 1913
Tortoiseshell, wood, raffia vinifera
16.5 x 11.2 x 26.5 cm
A lamellophone whose sound box consists of the complete shell of a tortoise. Seven lamellae of various lengths made of raffia vinifera lie on two wooden combs on the belly of the tortoise and are tightened in the middle with vegetable fibres.
This modeku (inv. no. 3222) was brought back by Armand Hutereau, a Belgian soldier on assignment to the Belgian State who led an expedition to make an ethnographic record of North-Eastern Congo. He collected more than 600 instruments from the Zande and Mangbetu areas, as commissioned by the Africa Museum in Tervuren, and made recordings that are among the oldest sound documents on African music. Through his uncle Herman Vermandele, a teacher of musical notation and diction at the Brussels Conservatory, he presented 26 well-chosen Zande instruments to his friend Victor Mahillon, the first curator of the Musical Instrument Museum. This small instrument with its striking sound box is in perfect condition.
Musical instruments comprising several lamellae on a sound box have existed in black Africa for centuries. These lamellophones (called sanzas) first appeared in two main areas - the Cameroon grasslands and the area around the Lower Zambezi - and spread to the rest of black Africa. They occur in almost every population group, and in countless variations. They are built entirely by hand, mainly using materials that the builder finds in his everyday surroundings. The player holds the instrument in both hands and plucks the lamellae with his thumbs or fingers. Each lamella or tongue produces one note. They are arranged so that the local melodies are easy to play, so their order varies from one area to another. Africans enjoy watching the nimble-fingered virtuoso playing, and admire it as a visual and decorative element comparable to the decoration of the instrument. All African lamellophones also have small objects in metal, glass, shell, wood or stone attached to the outside or in the sound box, which vibrate or rattle as it is played. This means that with a handful of notes music can be made for relaxation, to summon up rain, to dance or to talk to ancestors.
Since no comparable musical instruments were in use in Europe, Western travellers to Africa from the seventeenth century on gave various names to the lamellophone, including 'thumb harp', 'nail violin', 'thumb piano', 'Kaffir keyboard', 'hand piano', 'pianino' and 'finger piano', in order somehow to describe them by reference to familiar Western instruments. By the way, the sanza is also to be found in Brazil and the Antilles, as a result of the slave trade.
In his notes for July 1860, when he was journeying through the valley of the Lower Zambezi, David Livingstone mentions the 'sansa' (actually an incorrect spelling of 'nsansi', the name of the local lamellophone of the Nyungwe and Manganja in Mozambique). Since then, 'sanza' has often been used as a general term for all African lamellophones. In 1965 the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik introduced the neutral, organologically correct term 'lamellophone'. In Africa itself, each variant on the lamellophone in each population group has its own name.
One of the first depictions of the African lamellophone is in Filippo Bonanni's Gabinetto. Bonanni (1638-1725) was a Roman Jesuit and a librarian and never visited Africa. The drawing of the renowned 'Marimba de Cafri' in his famous compendium of musical instruments was based on descriptions given by a fellow priest. According to the accompanying text, this African lamellophone came from 'Cafreria, part of the kingdom of Monomotapa, below the 15th degree of latitude from the Antarctic Pole'. Kaffir was an originally Arabic name for a black man, a heathen.
The history of the lamellophone in the Congo is closely linked to colonisation. The instrument was played mostly by the bearers who accompanied expeditions and trade missions, and later by the day labourers looking for work in mines, plantations, harbours and cities. The lamellophone was a way of passing the time on the long marches and made walking more agreeable. 'L'instrument vous porte', as the Congolese say ('The instrument carries you'). In a 1902 bulletin issued by the then Musée du Congo (later the Africa Museum) one can read the following: 'The blacks play sanzas [lamellophones] with great enthusiasm. In such districts as the Kwango and the Cataractes almost everybody has one. It is not only in their free time that they play, for their pleasure, but also to establish a tempo when working and above all for the rhythm of walking. The music has the effect of relaxing and spurring on at the same time. The caravans constantly traversing the roads of the Cataractes were always preceded by a sanza-player, and every European who travelled through this region before the arrival of the railway still remembers this lively, restless music, an excellent remedy for travel weariness.' (Annales du Musée du Congo. Série III, Tome 1, Fasc. 1, Musée du Congo, Brussels, 1902, p. 123). Hutereau wrote 'It is mainly on the roads that one comes across madaku (sic) on their journeys. This is why it is said that the black man plays this instrument to drive evil spirits away from the road.' This can be read in the notebook he compiled for Mahillon in 1913 and handed over with his Zande instruments (Armand Hutereau, 1st June 1913, MIM GDM 4156, p. 14).
The most common lamellophone in the Congo is the likembe. It was first created in the Lower Congo during the colonial period at the end of the nineteenth century and spread all over Central Africa. Many likembes display a fascination for objects produced by European industry: blue glass beads on the iron lamellae and coins on the sound box.
The likembe declined due to the rise of motorised transport and portable radios and the appearance of the guitar. The electronically amplified likembe is now making the instrument popular once again. See a selection of YouTube clips at the bottom of this page. The mim cannot be held responsible for the publication of these images.