The African Harp – mystery and mystique

The African harp with its thousand sounds and uses takes the listener into the magical world of the music of the African continent.

Whether large or small, the African harp almost always carries within itself a fundamental paradox: It is both simple and complex. The strings of the African harp, intended first of all to accompany singing, vary according to the region or even according to the person who makes or uses it. In Central Africa, the harp may have just one string – among the Fang of Gabon – or ten strings as we see among the Isongo or the Mbaka in the Congo. The single-stringed harp is often used to accompany singing and as a percussion instrument: the musician beats the rhythm on the sound-box and plucks the string at the same time.

Other harps have more strings such as the dilla harp used by the Massa of Chad. The dilla harp has four strings while the kindé harp that we find among the Islamicised peoples of Chad, has five.
Among the Pongwé of Gabon the eight-stringed ouombi harp is to be found. The harp accompanies a song for the healing of a sick person. A healer woman practises the abandji method that enables her to transform herself into a supernatural being to participate in the plans of the beyond and so discover a way of choosing the barks and leaves that form part of medicines to be afterwards given to the patient. In this way, the ouombi harp is intended to guide the spirit of the woman in the land of the sirens.

arp2Of all the instruments of traditional African music, the harp is the one that brings man closest to the invisible spirit world. It is a familiar item that enjoys special consideration, not only by the lute players who make it or play it, but by the whole community in which it is used. Many harps are called sacred. They are carved with a head that represents the outline of a goddess, the same one to which all the songs, prayers and invocations are addressed to obtain this or that favour unobtainable by other means. Seen in this way, the harp itself becomes a goddess whose praises are sung and to whom prayers are addressed.

Of all the African harps, however, that which attracts most attention is the ardin which we find almost exclusively in Mauritania. Then we have the kora, played in Mali, Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, and the zither harp called the mvet of the Fang of Cameroon and the north and south of Gabon.  arp4In the musical tradition of Gabon it is the woman who plays the ardin harp while the man plays the tidinit, a four-stringed lute with a wooden sound-box.
We must bear in mind that, in Mauritania, music is practised first and foremost by the griot who by themselves a particular category, a caste of the society. The griot, here as elsewhere in western Africa, hand on from generation to generation the instrumental techniques as well as the rules and refinements of an art based upon rather complicated musical theory.
The ardin is a harp with ten strings strung between the two sides of a wooden triangle of which they form the third side. The base of the triangle is glued to a stretched skin which covers a sound-box. formed from a half gourd. This sound-box is in turn provided with round metal platelets bordered with small rings. In some cases, when an ardin player sings while other musicians accompany her, she simply beats the rhythm with both her hands without plucking the strings of the instrument.

A caste instrument
The Kora, doubtless better known and more communicative than its synonymous counterpart in Mauritania, is one of the most beautiful musical instruments of black Africa both for its appearance and for its timbre. It may be played solo, without any instrumental accompaniment or human voice. Its music is beautiful, its resonance infective and unforgettable. It often serves to accompany songs, praises or epic stories and poems declaimed by the griot.
arp3In Central Africa, musicians may be found who have a role that is quite similar to that of the griot of west Africa, even though their presence is less widespread in daily life. An example of these are the mvet players, also called toucheurs de citare of the Fang, in south Cameroon and north Gabon. The mvet is a harp whose strings are strung along a raffia stalk and raised in the middle by a bridge. The sound is amplified by one or more gourds by one or more gourds fixed in place with the help of the bridge and plucked by the fingers of both hands while the player presses one of the sound-boxes to his chest to hold the harp steady. The musician is often dressed in raffia fibres. He wears necklaces, bracelets and many bird feathers. When he appears in the village square he merely indicates a dance step and all those rattles and bells he has around his ankles and arms invite the people to dance around him. He then sings and immediately all the men and women find, as if by magic, the refrain that corresponds to the song just begun. Then begins the eagerly-awaited story that will go on through the night and end only at dawn. (B.F.)


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