Zande gugu slit gong

struck idiophone


Large zoomorphic slit gongs are impressive witnesses of the craftmanship and artistic skills of the Zande(-related) people in the North-East of the DRC. They were (and occasionally still are) essential and prestigious tools in the implementation of the chief's power. Their role in the community was substantial. The drummer distributed important news through collectively recognized encoded messages. These encoded messages were realized by a variation in rhythm and by the alternation of two different pitches (the two sides of the gugu have a different thickness and thus produce a different note). The messages concerned a limited number of items, relevant to the daily life of the villagers. They announced upcoming ceremonies, high rank visits, or imminent danger. They also had a musical role, playing in the court ensemble along membrane drums, side-blown horns and metal double bells, to accompany dances. Gugu were objects of great reverence. During ethnic wars, and later during colonial punitive expeditions, the removal of the gugu was the ultimate proof of the defeat of the local chief. Later, slit gongs were also used for colonial communication, passing on messages from the Belgian administration, such as the announcement of the obligation to pay taxes.

The mim's recently acquired Zande gugu was built in a village near Kisangani, presumably on the occasion of Stanley's passage through the region in the early 1880s. In 1957 Pierre Humblet, a Belgian architect, travelling through the region on commission of his employer, the Office des Cités Africaines, spotted the gong in the village. The gugu, with a broken sound box, was no longer in use and the elders of the village agreed to sell it, after which it was transported to the architect's home in Léopoldville (Kinshasa). In 1961, after the independence of the DRC,  The gugu moved with the Humblet family to Belgium and for the next decades was a fixed piece of the interior of the family's modernist house in Uccle, Brussels. In the autumn of 2020, the family donated the slit gong to the mim.

The gugu measures about 2 meters long and is about 1 meter high. It is made of one large, single piece of wood. The sound box has been carefully hollowed out through a narrow slit on the top of the gong with the aid of gradually longer chisels. Both the rims of the slit are different in thickness and produce two different tones.

The wood has been identified as Milicia excelsa (iroko, yielding 'African teak') and belongs to the family of the Moraceae (the 'mulberry family' or 'fig family'), widespread in tropical and subtropical regions. The iroko, with the reputation of being 'made of stone', grows up to 50 metres high and its strong, dense and durable dark brown hardwood, resistant to termites, makes it ideal for carving slit drums. The drum represents a Congo buffalo, also known as the dwarf buffalo, or African forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus).