A brief history of the Luo people’s great musical contribution, Nyatiti, an eight stringed pentatonic lyre with a percussive base. With early versions of the lyre dating over 5000 years, today’s Nyatiti has seen transformations from migration, curious female immigrants, and emerging musical genres while maintaining a sacred relationship to the Luo culture and traditions.
The Luo are regionally celebrated for their strikingly colourful lifestyle, structured cultural practices, and defined traditions. Some of the world’s decorated trailblazers, including former United States President Barack Obama, Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o, former Ligue One striker Dennis Oliech, World Boxing Champion Conjestina Achieng, The Constant Gardener movie scorer Ayub Ogada(RIP) and UN culture ambassador Suzanna Owiyo, all share one thing in common – their Luo ancestry. However, the prime export of the Nilotic group found in the Western part of Kenya, is the dance music Benga which has shaped the melodies of Kenya, Africa, and the world at large. Retracing the roots of Benga reveals one key component at the center of this phenomenon – Nyatiti, an eight string, pentatonic-scale lyre idolized as the Queen of the clan.
A lyre from the Nile River Valley
The Nyatiti, generally an eight-stringed plucked lyre from Kenya, is a classical instrument prominently played by the Luo people of Western Kenya, specifically in the Siaya region, south of Kisumu. Nyatiti is found in various forms, sizes, number of strings and construction materials. From Egypt, down to the Valleys of Lake Victoria, and into the Rift Valley, you can find different adaptations of Nyatiti. The Luo people play the eight-stringed format of the lyre. In Dholuo, Nyatiti loosely translates into daughter of the clan (an extended family) thus, it’s considered a feminine instrument among the Luo. It is about two to three feet long with a bowl-shaped two feet wide and a carved wood resonator (resembling the hut of a Luo village) covered in leather (cow) skin, with strings attached from the bottom of the resonator and an opening cut into the back, allowing for sound to be projected outwards, amplifying it.
A simple construction utilizes eucalyptus framing, fig tree resonator layered with a cow skin, double bridges made of papyrus, held down by bees’ wax, and a third bridge made of any soft wood. The Luo, being primarily fishermen, now generally utilise strings from their fishing lines to form the chords of the Nyatiti.
“The strings, we Luos are fishermen. So, we made an instrument from fishing wire.” noted Ayub Ogada, a renowned Nyatiti legend who composed ‘Koth Biro,’ the soundtrack to the film, The Constant Gardener.
With five notes, being a pentatonic instrument, Nyatiti is mainly rhythmic, like having a drum pattern with a little bit of a melody for pitching. The rest of the work relies on the voice and lyrics of the player.
Tabu Osusa the Music Producer who was recently celebrated by the French government for his role in cultural preservation, said in another interview, “The Nyatiti is a very very unique instrument. I’ve travelled around and I haven’t seen anywhere where they play the Nyatiti.”
Fishing lines and rites of passage
Traditionally, Nyatiti was an essential part of Luo life, beyond the fact that it borrows an important component from the people’s economic activity – a fishing line. The instrument boasted a spiritual significance within the villages, with the Luo traditional witch doctors playing it to foretell the happenings in society. It was also the choice instrument for various rites of passage within the community, like during send off of departed ones (liel), remembrance ceremonies (rapar), communal get togethers (romo), and other social celebrations practiced by the Luo. Likewise, there is symbolism in the 8 strings of the Nyatiti. The lower 4 strings represent the first 4 days after a male’s birth and the upper 4 strings represent the first 4 days after a male’s death. As such, this instrument was accorded the utmost respect and its use a preservation of a few dignified elders.
“The way you play it; the instrument always sings its name. If you play the rhythm properly, the instrument always praises itself.” Ayub Ogada observed, during a past interview with Singing Wells.
Nyatiti is played as a solo instrument with the player seated on a low stool (called Mbero/Orindi or Then), drumming out percussion by the foot, on which he wears a series of bells (known as Gara) tied on the right ankle, Oduong’o is a ring tied on the toe of right leg to keep the groove throughout the performance. The performer wears a costume made from cow skin and head gear (known as Kondo).
“They were so wise to create something like that. Imagine one person, you carry like the whole band,” notes Walter Koga, a native Nyatiti player, during an interview with Singing Wells.
Goyo Otenga is a dance that accompanies the Nyatiti – a vigorous dance where the dancers (ladies) shake their shoulders quickly with sisal skirts.
Nyatiti in the hands of masters
As more and more musicians emerged within the region, the love and adaptation of Nyatiti spread. And so did the skills. However, after the second world war, returning war veterans from the Kings Brigade brought with them western instruments that they used during the war, like the box guitar, which started gaining popularity and preference among emerging musicians, to the abandonment of Nyatiti. Though, even when the newer artists alternated the Nyatiti for a box guitar, it still influenced their playing style, as they plucked the strings instead of strumming.
With time, some musicians emerged who were keen on continuing the traditional culture and playing of Nyatiti. They began innovating new ways to incorporate the unique Nyatiti melodies into their compositions, and finding unique sounds in the process. Ayub Ogada is the most well-known and accomplished musician of this era. Working with World Music, he composed an album that included the singles Wa Winjogi Ero and Koth Biro, which went on to gain global popularity, serving as the soundtrack to the film The Constant Gardener.
Ayub would later travel and tour the world, performing in conferences, festivals and exhibitions, becoming Nyatiti’s biggest musical exporter.
Following in the success and footsteps of Ayub, a younger musician, Makadem would soon emerge to bear the mantle of Nyatiti music. Under the tutelage of Tabu Osusa at Ketebul Music studio, Charles Ademson alias Makadem exchanged his previous youthful raga sound for a more refined and culturally rich Nyatiti music with the release of his debut album, Ohanglaman.
“Going back to the roots, to me, that’s important, because that’s where I get my ideas; my style of music.” Makadem told the Singing Wells.
This new musical direction placed Makadem on the path to success, as he embarked on an extensive European tour, performing at some of the leading music festivals and sharing stages with legendary musicians like Gregory Isaacs, Mighty Culture, Glen Washington, Baba Maal, Mahotella Queens and Lokua Kanza.
Women pick up Nyatiti
As the fame and popularity of male Nyatiti players increased, their female counterparts must have felt left out. Considering that traditionally the Nyatiti was not to be touched by a lady, they couldn’t enjoy the same glory that the male players experienced. It was only a matter of time before someone braved the scene and transcended the traditions. Anyango would be her name.
The unforeseen entrance of Japanese artist, Eriko Nyamukoma alias Anyango Nyar Siaya, completely tilted the Nyatiti narrative as she became one of the first female performers to pick up the instrument. Born in Japan, Anyango claims to have encountered her first interaction with the enchanting instrument at a music festival.
“I saw many kinds of Kenyan traditional music. One of them was the Nyatiti.” Says Anyango. “I got very shocked and surprised! It was very unique, and it’s sound really touched me. I was falling in love with the Nyatiti.”
This enchantment would lead the artist to embark on a long search, trailing the source of this instrument and music. A search that landed her in Alego Siaya, at a small village called Aluny, where she’d meet her master and tutor, the celebrated Nyatiti musician, Okumu K’orengo. Being a true master, and in a real mentor style, Okumu had to gauge Anyango’s seriousness and determination, before entrusting her (a stranger) with the knowledge and traditions of his forefathers. This had Anyango camping in Alego, living amongst his people, learning their language, observing their cultures and practices, and proving her complete commitment and respect before she’d be imparted with the required skills to play the Nyatiti.
“I had to go to the river every morning to fetch water, and gather firewood. But I didn’t have the feeling of wanting to give up. Maybe because of the spirit of Nyatiti.”
Unknown to Anyango, she’d opened a floodgate for other women to swiftly pick up the instrument. Suzanna Owiyo is one such act. Raised in Thika, an industrial town away from her native home, Suzanna got a chance to learn about her Luo roots, and how to play the Nyatiti from her grandfather, who was a talented and prolific Nyatiti player, when the family relocated to Nyakach in Kisumu.
Previously a guitar player, Suzanna Owiyo picked up the eight-string instrument after being inspired by Ayub Ogada. She mentions Anyango Nyar Siaya as one of her great inspirations. Suzanna’s music is a fusion of traditional western Kenyan music and contemporary rhythms. Traditional instruments like Nyatiti and Orutu, are featured in her recordings, as heard on “Janyau”, the first track of her album, Yamo Kudho (the wind is blowing).
With Anyango and Suzanna leading the emancipation of women in Nyatiti music, other key players soon embraced the instrument which was once a taboo. Ladies like Jennifer, and Judy Bwire emerged on the scene, a Nyatiti proudly placed on their laps, their fingers tenderly plucking the strings, as sweet serenades bellowed through their honeyed vocal chords. A tradition had been surpassed, melodiously.
Nyatiti against the odds
Equipped with the skills of playing the Nyatiti, Anyango would develop her own style and bring the sounds of Nyatiti to an international audience. Being an instrument with deep attachment to Luo traditions, the association of a foreigner like Anyango, with the Nyatiti knowledge and skills away from the Luo was however met with division and criticism. Some Luo musicians wondered out loud why her mentor chose to impart the special skills and knowledge to an outsider, instead of teaching Kenyan women first. It’s a dilemma we may never solve, as her master, Okumu K’orengo, has long since departed.
To play the Nyatiti traditionally, one cannot cross boundaries, as the music is dedicated to a sect of people – the Luo, who understand it’s cultures and traditions. However, thriving in the contemporary markets means the rules have to be broken, sometimes. Though faced with initial resistance when trying to transform the Nyatiti style of music, emerging players have found ways to infuse the Nyatiti traditions into modern rhythms that can easily transcend global listenership, beyond the limiting Luo boundaries.
Rapasa Nyatrapasa, a young Naytiti player and tutor from western Kenya, currently based in the United Kingdom, learnt this early on in his training; he needed to first acquaint himself with the foundations, before branching out and breaking the rules. “I guess that old man was right,” Rapasa observes. Cut out to be the musical heir to Ayub Ogada, Rapasa spent some time perfecting his skills under the tutelage of the late international icon, as well as Nyatiti maestros in the villages of Alego, Ugenya, and Nyahera in western Kenya.
“Many people who saw me playing the Nyatiti immediately recalled Ayub’s extraordinary talent,” Rapasa narrates in a past interview.
His unique skills on the Nyatiti has already earned him a reputation that has seen a commissioning by the BBC TV to produce music for its wildlife series ‘Serengeti.’
Rapasa’s mission is reclaiming the space of traditional and rare instruments on the mainstream stages. He was one of the only four international musicians to be accepted into the UK Sage Gateshead Artist in Residence programme in September 2020, to develop and further his mission, which has resulted in a new Nyatiti Album.
The future is eight-stringed
Shifts in Nyatiti styles have led to greater innovations among existing and emerging players.
Makadem, who has played the revered instrument for years now, constantly evolves and finds newer ways to keep his sound fresh, unique, and relatable. His innovativeness has seen the charismatic performer fuse Nyatiti rhythms with Jazz elements to a wild audience reception. Currently, Makadem has developed a new sound; Nyatititroniks. This is a fusion of Nyatiti with elements of electronic dance music, and trap. A Nyatititronik performance includes a Nyatiti, intertwined with electronic music house beats and effects.
One of the veteran Nyatiti players, Oduor Nyagweno is also keen to keep the Nyatiti spirit and culture alive. Finding a young protégé in Daniel Onyango, the 70-year-old maestro has been busy imparting Nyatiti knowledge and skills to the musician, in an effort to ensure his legacy lives, long after he exits the scene.
“The wisdom this instrument represents is that there are things that the past can teach us.” Nyagweno wisely stated in a recent interview with VoA.
Learning from his master for the past seven years has seen Onyango acquire great skills to take the Nyatiti international, with performances in Uganda, Sweden, and the United States already done. The youthful Onyango gives the old instrument a modern twist, by including electric guitar, saxophone, and drums in his band ensemble.
“Playing the Nyatiti won’t stop with my death… It can’t be extinguished yet as long as we are still teaching them.” Nyagweno concludes.
For Makadem, Nyatiti is as fresh and unique as you make it.
“It is not the instrument that is outdated, it is your misconception.” Makadem strongly warns the younger musicians.