Kamba - Music and Dance

All the song lyrics quoted on this page are taken from Mwikali Kieti and Peter Coughlin's excellent "Barking, You'll be Eaten! The Wisdom of Kamba Oral Literature" (1990: Phoenix Publishers Ltd., PO Box 18650 Nairobi). Please read the copyright notice. See also Mwali.
In this page:
The musical bow
Drums - Ngoma
Drums - Kilumi
Other drum dances
Songs - Hunting songs
Songs - Lullabies
Songs - Wedding songs
Songs - Work songs


Kamba drummersUndoubtedly the most spectacular manifestation of traditional Kamba culture was their dancing, performed to throbbing polyrhythmic drum beats. It was characterised by exceptionally acrobatic leaps and somersaults, which flung dancers into the air. The style of playing was similar to that of the equally disappeared traditions of the Embu and Chuka: the drummers would hold the long drums between their legs, and would also dance.

Unfortunately, with the exception of official functions and music festivals (where professional cultural troupes perform), Kamba dancing is now almost if not completely extinct. With the exception of one commercially available tape ("Akamba Drums", Tamasha), I failed to find any tapes of drum music, nor any reference to existing groups. The only live 'Akamba' drumming I heard was a pale imitation by a touristic multi-tribal ensemble on the coast, whose authenticity was inevitably suspect.

Several of the dances had military themes, directly derived from the participation by Kamba in large numbers in the country's armed forces, starting with the First World War when they served under the British in India and the Middle East.

The Musical Bow - Uta wa mundu mue

The Kamba musical bow is similar to those of other peoples, consisting of a tautly-strung bow, to which is attached a gourd resonator. The playing technique is, however, unusual: whilst beating the string with a stick to produce a single note, the performer sings into the hollow gourd.
   The instrument was played by medicine men while treating patients, and the Kamba name for the instrument - uta wa mundu mue - literally means 'the bow of the medicine man.'

Drums - Ngoma

Ngoma served three main purposes in Kamba life, and each purpose could be determined by the beat (the following is adapted from the sleeve notes to "Akamba Drums" - Tamasha Corp., PO Box 43695 Nairobi):

1. Three heavy drum beats and a two- to three-minute break sounded a warning to the village of an approaching enemy.

2. A single continuous beat was meant to remind villagers that it was time to meet somewhere, from where all would go and help cultivate the shamba (farm) for a colleague of theirs.

3. A heavy single stroke of the drum, followed by a continuous whistling was a call from help from the neighbours when for instance a hut was on fire or cattle rustlers had raided a cattle boma (enclosure).

Whenever the Ngoma drum was used in celebrations, it was first warmed in the sun to attain the correct timbre. During the dance a number of them could be used.

Drum dances - Kilumi

Kilumi (pl. milumi) drum songs and dances were traditionally performed by women and comprised of two kilumi drums accompanying the ululations and singing of a lead singer backed by two other women vocalists. Usually, the drummers compose and sing too.
   Formerly for old women, kilumi is now danced to even by men, and kilumi is one of the few songs and dances that traditionalists still perform in Ukambani. One session of the kilumi dance could last about half an hour, and the entire performance for something like eight hours.

Laughing at something

Museve Muumbi was carried down by water,
I came with Nzambi.

Don't forget, he knows what I want.
You will thatch with grass please. Muumbi drowned.

A slithering snake drowned. You will thatch with grass. Oh yes!
You will thatch with grass. Muumbi drowned. I came with Nzambi.

What do you know?
I was laughing at something. Soon it will be morning.

Iii of Mulovi of Walii and Ngata,
let me work like white men. What is it?

I will want to greet Walii,
Iii. Aiiiii. He is possessed! [spoken]

I will want to greet Walii,
Iii. Aiiiii. He is possessed! [spoken]

Do you know, I laugh at something I want. Walii and Ngata, if I want to, I'll call on you in the evening. Haieeee!

Other drum dances

The following is adapted from the sleeve notes to "Akamba Drums" (Tamasha Corp., PO Box 43695 Nairobi).

This dance is for young unmarried people and because of its tiring pace, it has the shortest sessions. One session lasts less than ten minutes. Its instruments are a set of four drums and three whistles. Danced in pairs as it gets to the climax, when the male dancer (Anake) jumps about four feet into the air and somersaults.

The most popular dance among Kamba teenagers. It is a condition that any boy attending an Nduli session must be circumcised, for it is in the Nduli dance that one may choose a partner for life.

This is a thanks-giving dance for all ages, both young and old. It is performed only when the village has had a good harvest. During the celebration a white goat is slaughtered, its blood poured under the Kitutu Tree, and its meat left near the tree for Mulungu (God).

The Mwasa dance involved two drums, one small and one large, and was found in northern Kitui. While not primarily used for dancing, Mwasa served as an accompaniment while elders enjoyed uki beer. Mwasa is a relatively new drum beat, which comes from a combination of Nzumari from the Giriama (one of the 'Nine Tribes' of the Mijikenda) and original Kamba Ngoma. It came into existence during the Second World War, when Giriama and Kamba soldiers served together in the colonial army.


The following has largely been adapted from Mwikali Kieti and Peter Coughlin's "Barking, You'll be Eaten! The Wisdom of Kamba Oral Literature" (1990: Phoenix Publishers Ltd., PO Box 18650 Nairobi). See the copyright notice.

The Kamba have many kinds of songs; and each type has a name. The songs included: mbathi sya kivalo; myali (general social commentary and scathing attacks [nzeo] against miscreants); lullabies; and songs for circumcisions, marriages, work, and hunts (uthiani). Circumcision songs had many names: ngakali (or kakali) and undiu. Unmarried girls sang maio ("mourning" songs) at a newly married girl's home to "mourn" losing their colleague. While thatching, threshing or digging, people commonly worked to the rhythms of songs.
   Mbathi sya kivalo were wathi songs accompanied by dance and, often, instrumental music. These songs differed according to the dance steps and drums used. Songs accompanied by instruments included kyaa, ngutha, mbalya, kuli, mbeni, kilumi and ngulukulu. Unaccompanied songs included nzai, kithakyo, musya, kilamu, mukungo, kilui, kileve, mawese and mbalu.
   Myali (singular mwali) were sung at wathis - big ceremonies with singing, dancing, and socializing. Myali were neither accompanied by musical instruments nor danced to in Machakos and Kitui Central. At the wathi, myali were sung during interludes between dances. They were also sung at weddings, after work, or simply for leisure. They were composed and sung throughout the year, even when wathi was out of season. Though every Kamba might sing myali, few composed them. The mwali composer (ngui) would sing a recent composition, sometimes on request [...]
   Though wathis are not held in most of Ukambani, myali are still sung in small informal groups. The ngui and mbasa interviewed during this research reported that ngui were no longer composing new myali. More thorough research is needed to reveal whether these customs have survived in some parts of Ukambani.
   Traditionally, myali covered events, experiences and attitudes of the Kamba - conserving traditions and defending customary mores. Besides entertaining, mwali also conveyed the Kamba's aspirations, hopes and fears. The language in myali was highly figurative with many metaphors, similes, and innuendos using imagery common to the people and their surroundings. Multiple themes were portrayed easily since one word or phrase could have several meanings at different levels. Thematically, myali were remarkably eclectic; each mwali dealt with multiple themes simultaneously. In rapid fire, the apparent focus shifted abruptly, though - through hidden references - major themes continually resurfaced. This made myali difficult to understand because certain words or phrases could be taken literally with deeper meanings eluding casual listeners. People were challenged to decipher the meanings of the things, places and persons alluded to. These disguised references made myali both difficult and popular; they were often codes understood by an intended few. By choosing words or occurrences known to few people, a ngui could conceal many ideas and messages, though he sang publicly.
   Myali extolled exceptional feats by individuals or groups and denounced deviant actions or behaviour, especially in nzeo ("to slice off"), a subclass of myali. Nzeo helped Kamba society discipline wrongdoers, rogues, and social misfits. Society, with its many eyes, swiftly exposed villainous behaviour. The culprits were named, and quickly, in the regular form provided by wathi. Traditionally, the Kamba were not at all reluctant to name publicly any wrongdoer. And everyone dreaded the scorn and wrath that ensued such public exposures. Once sung, people would remember and sing those nzeo long afterwards during wathi and while relaxing, walking, or working, especially when in earshot of the culprit. Psychologically, the peer-group pressure was immense; and people feared committing any transgression that might inspire a ngui to sing a nzeo against them.
   With sharp satire - currently an under used skill - myali seriously criticized society. For example, a torrent of myali condemned colonial oppression and exploitation. Myali helped mobilize people against the colonialists, though previous researchers have largely overlooked this function. Since myali was a major device for Kamba society to maintain its cohesion, discipline, and moral fibre, the colonialists' prohibition of wathi - the main fora for myali - struck a vital blow to the Kamba's ability to resist military and cultural domination, eg., orders to burn their traditional adornments and clothing.
   A novice ngui emulated older ngui and learned from their compositions. The budding ngui would compose a mwali and sing it to himself and his friends outside the wathi before being officially introduced at a wathi. A new ngui had to be recognized by elders and prominent ngui who would endorse him at the wathi.
   Since they received no formal training in the art of composing, the ngui's knack for composition was seen as divinely inspired. People much esteemed their ngii. If a ngui sang a mwali portending evil befalling someone, society believed this would eventually happen.
   The ngui respected and mentioned each other in their compositions, thereby recognizing each other's talents and demonstrating professional solidarity. Occasionally, ngui competed against each other. Each ngui was listened to individually. They insulted one another, calling each other names and pointing out their faults as a person and a ngui. They used subtle words only their age mates understood. But this was just a mock rivalry rarely extending beyond the wathi.
   A ngui's competence and artistic creativity was measured by how accurately he portrayed events, occasions or deeds. Originality and imaginative use of the language proved his artistic ability. By ingeniously manipulating the language, a ngui became distinguished. Though composition of a mwali was usually inspired by a specific event, the mwali also referred to other events the ngui had observed or heard about.
   Each ngui chose one or more men (mbasa) to help him sing. He composed a mwali on his own, sometimes isolating himself for days, depending on how quickly the mwali was formed. Then he called his mbasa and sang the song repeatedly until they memorized it later, the ngui and his mbasa attended the wathi and sang the new composition. A mbasa never composed or altered myali; they only sang with their ngui. A mbasa accompanied the ngui at all his performances. He carried the ngui's stool and skin and any gifts received. After singing at a function (eg., a wedding or feast), the ngui and his mbasa were fed kituma, a specially prepared chicken.
   Wathi was the most significant social occasion among the Kamba before colonialism. During a wathi, people gathered, sang and danced in the kituto or kinyaka, a specially cleared piece of land between two or three villages. People mingled at the wathi; and many youths met their future spouses. Wathi was organized by nthele selected by older men and women. Wathi happened during the dry season and was forbidden during planting, weeding and harvesting times. At the wathi, both individuals and groups sang with or without musical instruments, usually drums. Many types of drums were used for different dances.
   Different villages sometimes held dance competitions. Charms and magic were used to win the competitions, supposedly by lessening the opponents' vigour in dancing or by successfully deflecting an opponent's jinx.
   Between January and March, wathi wa muvingusyo (song of knocking) occurred. This kind of wathi happened at night. It started at the homesteads with youths singing loudly while gathering their friends and moving from village to village. Being free to wander at night, young men serenaded outside girls' huts. A girl's father would tell the group: "Stop clamouring, leave the compound." This signalled that he would allow his daughter to go with them. If he said nothing, the youths would wait patiently, later leaving without her, but reluctantly. After many youths joined the procession, they went to the kituto or any open space nearby where the wathi continued till dawn.
   After the harvest and circumcisions, wathi was at its peak. Dancing was specifically for the young. A man could dance until his children were adolescents; afterwards he could only watch. Married women, especially those who had borne more than two children, were usually spectators, not dancers. Each participant at the wathi had a wathi-name given by his peers. After marriage, women's wathi-names were dropped, though men kept theirs.
   For the wathi, young men and women adorned themselves with different ornaments collectively called mathaa, eg., masango, mavuo, masoa, milia, ndini, syuma, ndulo, nganyange, mamile, mbangili, ikuli and imaba.

Hunting songs

The following hunting song is called Uthiani. After a successful hunt (or raid), the hunters or warriors received a bull - the "unity" (muamba) bull - to eat.

Due to relishing heart and eating bone marrow, I was broken. Mwania's father's [cattle] were raided with a pronged stick.

Iii iiii mmmmm.

Though I might fail, I'll try to touch the breasts of the coward's wife. Yes! Unity and co-operation were destroyed due to relishing heart and eating bone marrow. Mwania's father's [cattle] were rustled with a pronged stick.

Iii iiii mmmmmmm.

I'll hunt deep into the forest till
I find them at Makala's digging up roots for the baby. I don't want people saying I feared elephants.

Quiver-carrier, if you fear elephants and yet have no wife, with what will you buy her?
You fear elephants though they have not adorned themselves with masango [a type of necklace].

Bang! Kisove's hunt in Mbitini! [spoken]


Women sang or sometimes just hummed short lullabies over and over again to restless or crying babies. The following is called "Rain".

Every worldly thing rejoices about rain. It is the mother of all the things God created.

Lululu, baby sleep.

Lululu, baby stop crying, rain is coming. Lululu, baby stop crying, rain is coming.

Wedding songs

This wedding song is entitled "Leave your friends, forget the dances!". A soloist sings each line twice, and the chorus repeats it twice.

Moses, you are now married. You should know, you are now an elder. Forget your old companions.

Moses, you have done a good thing for us. You need to know, you are now an elder. Forget your old companions. Stop going to the dances you went to. Stop going to the movies like you did before.

Aggy! Aggy is married. Know that you are now a wife. Leave your former friends. Forget the dances you used to attend. Know that you are now a wife.

Mutiswa! Mutiswa has "gone up". Fetchers of firewood have increased. The community has grown. Mambwa has slept. The community [of young unmarried women] is now one less.

Work songs

This song, entitled "To Gatundu to see Kenyatta", was sung as a solo to provide a rhythm for road-building, which was a form of forced labour imposed by the British.

Iii hep!
Have you heard?
Let's go to Gatundu to see Kenyatta. The people from Kithini never built a shop. Yes, have you heard?

The following, called "Don't forget me!", is also sung by a soloist, and accompanied the tiring task of grinding grain.

Nzakyo, you will get me arrested. Nzakyo, Mbuvi's son! Yes, you will get me arrested.

Tell me what is on your mind. I'm crying. As I open and close my eyes, tears just pour out.

Now, I am getting ready to travel like the governor's plane, the plane destined for Mwanza. Now, I am getting ready to travel like the governor's plane, the plane destined for Mwanza.

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Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

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