Kuria - Music and Dance
|Much of the material for this section was adapted from George Senoga-Zake's invaluable book, Folk Music of Kenya (1986: Uzima Press, Nairobi; PO Box 48127 Nairobi, Kenya). Also useful were Peoples and Cultures of Kenya by Andrew Fedders and Cynthia Salvadori, and the CD sleeve notes to Tanzanie: Chants des Wagogo et des Kuria (Inedit W260041).
|In this page:
Lyres - iritungu
Musical bows - obokano
Ibirandi (Isururu) - wedding dance
Embegete and Egetomo - wedding dance
Induru - wedding dance for adults
Isubo - celebration for pregnancy
Ukuhurania - boys' circumcision song
Other flutes - umwere and ekerongwe
Iribina 'ye ntono - celebration dance
Ekegogo - wedding and circumcision dance
Music and dance accompanied almost every traditional ceremony and rite of passage for the Kuria, especially weddings and circumcisions, and also served as entertainment in its own right.
Although many of the Kuria's musical traditions remain intact, the traditional context in which music was performed is changing fast. Still, for the present, the delight in dance remains, even if the elaborate trappings that were traditionally employed for the occasions - such as the giant 'clogs' that dancers wore (see the wedding dances below) - have become museum pieces.
Note that dances generally took their names from the instruments played in them, so don't get confused below...
The proximity of the Kuria to various populations originating in the Nile region has profoundly influenced their culture. This, in part, explains the existence of the lyre among the Bantu-speaking Kuria, which is an instrument much more common among Nilotic peoples (the exceptions in Kenya are the obokano of the Bantu-speaking Gusii (neighbours of the Kuria) and the seven-string litungu of the Luhya, all in the southwest of Kenya, and both of whose cultures have similarly been influenced by Nilotic cultures).
Given the level of skill required to play the iritungu, its performance was generally only given by professional musicians, frequently attached to a chief or another much-respected member of the community. Of these elders they would sing praises, lauding their wisdom, magnanimity, or military prowess. The words relied heavily on comparisons with, and indeed the evoking of, historical events, people and legends from the heritage of both their clan and the Kuria as a whole. As such, the songs were - and still are - when taken as together, astonishingly complete genealogical and historical records of the Kuria. And today, when the themes deal with political events of the day, the musicians remain the historians, moralists and embodiment of the collection memory and wisdom of the people.
The commonest of the Kuria dances is that of the Iritungu (sometimes called litungu). This is a large eight-stringed lyre, only fractionally smaller than the Gusii obokano. It is similar to the lyres of their other neighbours, also: the obukhana of the Marach, the Luo nyatiti or thum, the lukhuje of the Tiriki, and Luhya litungu.
Traditionally, the sound box was a large hemispherical wooden bowl, roughly half a metre across, cut out of a stump of wood; prefabricated metal bowls (karai) have now taken favour, as they need little work. The resonator was originally covered with cow-hide, although nowadays zebra skin is also used.
Two sticks (arms) attached sideways to the resonating chamber form the support for a crossbar, which serves as a peg. The arms are about 70cm long, and the crossbar measures approximately 65cm. The string, formerly made of animal tendons but now from nylon, run down the length of the instrument from the cross-bar to a bridge made from strips of reeds fastened in position by a big lump of beeswax.
The strings of the instrument are tuned in two separate groups: each of these groups of four strings is reserved for one hand, according to a distribution which allows for the greatest speed.
The iritungu is played in the same style as the nyatiti of the Luo and the obokhana of the Marachi, with the instrument set on the ground by the player/singer, but instead of having a ring on his big toe like the nyatiti player, the musician uses pea-pod-like metal rattles (ibibirria or ibiturani), containing between one and ten iron bells, tied on a longish stick held between his big toe and second toe of the right foot. While playing the lyre, he strikes the stick on the lower frame of the iritungu, giving a percussive accompaniment.
As a musical genre, iritungu dances consist of a repetition of brief melodic formulae - centonisation - the strong beats of which are marked by the striking of the ibiturani bell(s). Each piece thus begins progressively with this centonisation; once the rhythm of the lyre-playing has been established, the musician begins to sing the song in short descending phrases. He is sometimes accompanied on the ibirandi, gourds half filled with seeds or pebbles.
The iritungu was used in almost all ceremonies, and indeed could be played anywhere: a dance was sure to be performed. Both young and old took part. Dancing in two rows, males face their female partners and dance, jumping and shaking their necks.
See also iribina 'ye ntono - celebration dance below, for information about the Ntono musical bow
The obokano is a solo instrument, and is at times used by boys to serenade their girlfriends. Not to be confused with the giant obokano lyre of the Gusii, the Kuria obokano is a one stringed bow, which, unlike the ntono bow, is flat. It is about 7.5cm in width with a length of approximately 80cm, which makes it shorter than the ntono.
The string is usually of sisal fibre. One end of the bow is put in the mouth which acts as a resonator while the right hand plucks the string using a thorn from a sisal plant. Two main notes are clearly heard, the second of which is produced by stopping the string with the thumb of the left hand at the far end.
Like the ntono, the obokano is accompanied by a percussive instrument, in this case a small gourd half-filled with dried seeds called erisege, which is fixed on a short stick and held between the two last fingers of the (right) hand that is used to pluck the strings.
This dance was the most famous musical expression of the Kuria, performed to nothing more complicated than ibirandi - gourds half-filled with seeds or pebbles, which provided percussive accompaniment. The ibirandi were primarily played by men, young boys and girls, who danced during the day, or by elders who would perform such dances during wedding ceremonies.
The wedding dances started at sunset, and lasted all night until dawn, when youths would take over for the day. There was a soloist, whose fee for the performance of the music was a goat.
As lavishly oiled girls and women danced faster and faster, flashing their bands of neck-beads and coils of metal wire, male dancers appeared in the guise of giants. The illusion of such great size was created by the clogs or blocks of wood (imitiamburi) the dancers wore on their feet, thrusting them six to twelve inches above the ground, above which they then jumped yet higher. The impression was further heightened, if you'll pardon the pun, by the ostrich feathers that waved vertically from the top of their tall head-dresses. The dancers also wore ostrich feathers on their elbows, colobus monkey skins on their backs and cheetah skins on their chests. The dancers, both male and female, arranged themselves in two circular rows, girls in the inner ring and men in the outer. Facing each other, they danced in a circle.
Sadly, these dances have now disappeared.
This was a vigorous day-time dance for boys and girls accompanied by drums, and was usually performed at an elder's wedding, and sometimes on other occasions. The dress of the participants was the same as for ibirandi dance; the girls glittering with copious amounts of oil smeared all over their bodies, beads round their necks, long earlobes are adorned with home-made ear-rings, bare-chested and with long robes tied around their waists, the boys wearing the imitiamburi clogs.
The dance would begin with the boys standing in a row waiting for the drumming to start. When these started, the girls walked to the line of boys to pick their partners (those who were not picked did not participate in the dance).
Dancing in two rows, the boys, facing their partners, jumped in such a fashion that every time they landed they alternately stretched forward their left and right legs, as well as their arms on the same side. Jumping, the girls jerked their heads and threw their hands forward and sideways, shaking rhythmically to the throb of the embegete and egetomo drums.
The embegete is a long hollowed-out log, covered on one side with a skin while the other end is open. The egetomo was originally a shorter version of the embegete, but is most likely nowadays to be a kerosene tin covered on both sides. It is stood upright and played on the top side only. It, like the Iteso atenusu, is cordbraced, and is warmed over a fire to tune it.
When, finally, the boys and girls got exhausted from the embegete and egetomo dance, the adults took over with the induru dance. The instruments for this dance were an antelope horn (blown like a flute) accompanied by a percussive gourd (ibirandi).
Dancers went two rounds in the same direction, after which they faced each other, but they did not hold hands.
When a woman was about six months pregnant, she would return to her father's home, accompanied by about twenty women relatives of her husband, who proceeded, usually led by a thirteen year old sister-in-law blowing the esegere horn. This girl was supposed to be the ayah of the expected baby. This group arrived home one day before the main party from her husband's home arrived.
On arrival at her father's home, her husband's women relatives are met by twenty women from the girls' family. There follows a sort of a scuffle in which the visiting women try to unthatch houses while the hosts try to prevent them. This may go on for some time until they are calmed down.
A goat is slaughtered for the celebrations and soon women start dancing the isubo. A professional female musician is employed, and her fee is a fowl. She plays the ibirandi (percussive gourds) throughout the night.
The expectant mother sits in the centre, surrounded by the forty women who dance all night, most of the time bending forward. This dance is restricted to women, although the father may be allowed to watch. The following morning the young wife is returned to her husband.
When the time comes for boys to be initiated, they meet during the day so as to seek permission from their parents and elders of the clan. They dance to the songs of persuasion for the elders' permission. After permission has been granted, they continue dancing along the road to the circumcision place. The dance is called ukuhurania, and is accompanied by ekibiswi or emborogo flutes.
The ekibiswi (or ikibiswi) is a transverse flute made out of a certain swamp reed or bamboo. It is approximately 20cm long and has five holes; four key-holes and the fifth through which the player blows. One end is left open, the other is covered with beeswax. This flute is usually mastered by young boys while tending goats or cattle, after which they proceed to playing the emborogo, ekirongwe and umwere.
The emborogo is similar to the ekibiswi, being only slightly longer at about 25cm. There is no standard pitch for tuning this instrument, as each maker chooses his own size and pitch. The emborogo is used by young men to serenade their fiancees, and when it is played by older men it is on the occasion of circumcision ceremonies.
The Umwere is another transverse flute similar to the ekibiswi and emborogo, with the difference that it is covered on both ends. Performers of the umwere have variations, mibare, which may sound alike to the listener's ear, but no two mibare are ever danced to in the same style.
The ekerongwe flute, like the umwere, is covered at both ends, and is distinctive by its longer size and hence its low, warm tone. It is played by men tending cattle, by married men and youths, but not by the very old.
The name of this dance means 'dance of the ntono'. The ntono is a simple musical bow, strung by means of a short wire almost two thirds down, and another short wire tied at the very top. A gourd is used as a resonator, and is fixed at the back of the bow (ie. the convex side), at the point where the short wire (two thirds down) is tied to the bow.
This instrument is played by holding the resonator against the stomach, and tapping both segments with a short small stick; two notes a fourth apart are produced. The player wears a thimble called enko on his middle finger, made of the neck of a gourd, which is pressed against the upper section of the string to produce a third note. Beads tied on a wire at the top of the instrument act as a percussion accompaniment, as do a pea-pod-like rattle mbiiri, worn on the little finger of the right hand.
After boys and girls are circumcised and healed, they celebrate with the iribina 'ye ntono. As in the embegete dance, girls pick their partners and the dance takes place during the day. During wedding ceremonies, however, boys pick their partners, and the dance is performed at night. Boys and girls of ten to thirteen years of age dance on moon-lit evenings from eight to about nine at night. When they feel tired and can no longer jump, they twist and wriggle their bodies. Elderly people enjoy dancing in the iribina 'ye ntono with their wives at beer parties.
Although the dance of the ekegogo is performed at weddings, it is mostly done at the initiation rites. This is strictly pairs of men and women or boys and girls alternately. It is shameful to see a boy dancing with a woman or a man dancing with a girl. So when the elders dance, boys and girls simply sit down and watch. The dance is for any time of the day or night.