Ngoma: Experiencing Life Through Music and Dance

Tharaka-Nithi Cultural FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

The role of music in Kenyan communities

Traditional music in Kenya is more than a form of artistic expression. Traditional music was mostly passed down orally in the past, accompanied by instruments and costumes which played an important role in traditional dances.

Pokomo DanceNational Museums of Kenya

Dancers wore masks and carried shields, swords and other objects to enhance music and communicate to both the living and their ancestors. Among the Maa speaking communities, song has always played a large role in ceremonial life. This is still the case. One of the best known Maasai ceremonial songs is the Engilakinoto, sung after a successful lion hunt.

Turkana WomenNational Museums of Kenya

The evolution of traditional music

African music has undergone frequent and decisive changes throughout the centuries. What is termed traditional music today is very different from African music in former times. In the past, tunes and rhythms were not rigidly linked to specific ethnic groups. Through migrations, different ethnic groups borrowed musical styles and instruments, while individual groups' creativity and style continued to play an important role in the evolution of music.

Samia Music Instrument by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Traditional African music includes songs and dances that have been performed by custom over a long period, through several generations, as a form of worship, ritual and entertainment. Traditional music, mostly classified as folk songs, is historically ancient, rich and diverse, with different regions and nations of Africa having many distinct musical traditions.

Traditional music in Kenya can be categorised into groups: Lullabies, initiation, children’s songs, marriage and burial dirges, hero praises, preparing the land, planting and harvesting, criticism and condemnation, among others.

Isukha MusicianNational Museums of Kenya

Musical instruments

There is an enormous variety of traditional musical instruments in Africa. The most frequently used were percussion instruments, especially drums. There were also varieties of wind and stringed instruments, ranging from the simple mouth blow to more complex varieties of harps, flutes and lyres. Musical instruments in African societies served a variety of roles. Certain instruments were used solely for song accompaniment. Others, however, served religious and social functions besides recreational applications, or as accompaniments for dancing. Among certain ethnic groups, there were restrictions as to the age, sex, or social status of the persons who played the instruments.

FluteNational Museums of Kenya

The Kamba flute

This musical flute was made from the muangini (swamp reed). It consists of three carefully crafted holes, easily shaped to help direct the flow of air to produce sound. It was played by men for leisure.

Flute (1988)National Museums of Kenya

The Kipsigis flute

This wooden flute was often made by young Kipsigis men and blown during leisure time.

WhistleNational Museums of Kenya

The Rabai whistle

This whistle was made from an antelope's horn. It is a very rare find.

Samia Music Instrument by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The Samia horn trumpet

Ombango Omutsembi, a Samia man, depicted blowing a horn for leisure.

TrumpetNational Museums of Kenya

The Tugen horn trumpet

This trumpet was made from antelope horn, with a hole at the tip, by an old craftsman. It was used as a musical instrument by the elders and, occasionally, as a siren to summon an army in the event of an enemy invasion.

Witch Doctors Musical Horn (1966)National Museums of Kenya

The Kikuyu witch-doctor's horn

This waterbuck horn was used as a musical horn. Such horns were used in cleansing ceremonies by witch doctors from the Ethaga Clan.

Dance mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The Kuria horn and dance mask

Ngwina Mukwena, from the Kuria community, is dressed for dance. He is depicted blowing a horn.

Siwa Side Blown HornNational Museums of Kenya

The Swahili Siwa side-blown horn

The Siwa, the ceremonial side blown horn, is one of the most distinctive items of regalia from sub-Saharan African. Made of ivory, it was made in 1688 on the Pate Island.

Musical Instrument by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Swahili man blowing a Siwa horn

Among the Swahili people, the Siwa was perceived as a symbol of unity, and Swahili rulers served as its sole guardians. The Siwa was also believed to have supernatural and magical powers.

Dancing TubeNational Museums of Kenya

Pokot dancing tube

This 2.5 meter long hollow tube produces a booming sound similar to the Didgeridoo. It was played during ceremonies and to accompany dancing. The player would hold it vertically, blow his cheeks out, and produce the same note at regular intervals.

Musical InstrumentNational Museums of Kenya

The African drum

In Kenya there is a wide variety of drums, which may have served in a number of different roles, some of them not primarily musical. Their manufacture was often steeped in ritual and symbolism, and their use may have been restricted to specific contexts. In many societies, only men were able to play them; in others, certain drums were used only by women.

DrumNational Museums of Kenya

The Kamba drum

This is a drum made by old men for use by women when required for the Kilumi dance. Men were also known to use the drum and dance, but only those who are aware of the "spiritual words" in kilumi songs. The kilumi song was a propitiation dance, used in times of famine or other stress. The drums were made from wood of the muinga tree, carved with a thia, and finished with an adze (ngomo). The chocks (Kyambo) holding down the skin were cut by a knife and made from goat skin.

DrumNational Museums of Kenya

The Luyia drum and Sikuti dance

The Luyia of Western Kenya have a very distinctive traditional dance style called Sikuti, named after a local drum. This is an extremely energetic dance usually performed by paired male and female dancers, and accompanied by several drums, bells, long horns and whistles. The Kamba and Chuka people of Eastern Kenya also have their own dances, each with distinctive drumming styles.

Pokomo Medicineman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The Pokomo drum

This is a Pokomo medicine man with the tools of his trade. His drum was a major part of his healing ritual.

Tsotso drummer by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The Tsotso drum

Malako, a Tsotso man, is shown playing a drum. A drummer's talent played a major role in creating a charming rhythm in communal dances.

AbuNational Museums of Kenya

The Luo Abuu

The Abuu was a musical instrument often used by the Luo community. It is a combination of gourds leading to a horn at the tip. The gourds are held together by wax and grounded bark of the Powo tree. The Abuu was traditionally blown during important ceremonies, and used for entertainment.

LyreNational Museums of Kenya

The Kipsigis lyre

Eight wire stringed lyre were used to accompany singing and dance during marriage or circumcision ceremonies, named 'ketuba chaburecha.'

FiddleNational Museums of Kenya

The Luo fiddle

This musical instrument was made from a tin covered with leather skin and tied with a wire. It was played to produce melodic sounds.

Musical InstrumentNational Museums of Kenya

The Luo Nyatiti

One of the best renowned stringed instruments is the Nyatiti, which was commonly played throughout Western Kenya. It has a gentle, relaxing sound, and was usually played solo with a single singer, and sometimes accompanied by light percussion or bells.

Luo Witchdoctor by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The Luo shaker

The shaker was a gourd with several seeds inside. It produced a rhythmic rattling sound when shaken. Music was a part of ritual cleansing ceremonies in various Kenyan communities.

Musical instrumentNational Museums of Kenya

The Embu rattle

This rattle was made from the leaves of a palm tree, with seeds placed inside. It was worn around the waist or shoulder and shaken to produce sound when dancing.

Maasai Dance-Eunoto CeremonyNational Museums of Kenya

Experience music and dance among Kenyan communities

Visit the National Museums of Kenya and the communities' annual festivals to get a glimpse into their fascinating musical cultures.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curators: Immelda Kithuka, and Mercy Gakii,Cultural Expert, Cultural Heritage Department.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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