Kikuyu Traditional Music instruments
Updated August 2013
The Kikuyu were agriculturalists, an occupation that is not known for great music. However, after the harvests and other farm labour, they participated in dances which were mainly choral in nature with hardly any accompaniment except for the jingles on the legs to maintain a rythm. A few instruments are however noteworthy, which were played mainly by soloists.
The flute was never used in group dances or songs. It was only played when the player had too much time in his hands. It was also played when a man was grieving over the loss of somebody or personal belongings. During the dry season, when the millet that was planted during the short rain (mbura ya mwere) was maturing, the flute came in handy. It was played to while away the time in the field as the farmer kept a close watch on his millet crop. During this marira-ini ma mwere season, the birds too were hungry for the millet and needed to be constantly threatened with stones. The watch started at as early as 4 a.m and would go on up to about 7 p.m. The family, especially the boys would also help by taking turns on the high platform (getara) which was built in the middle of the garden.
The flute and whistles blown by men only. However Routledge described a flute that was played by women only "...Two Inch diameter bamboo, open on both ends, capable of only one note! played by women at circumcision."
It was taboo to blow them inside a hut.
The Gechande 'picture rattle' was a gourd with coloured lines and images that Routledge referred to as hieroglyhics. It was also decorated with cowrie shells. the gourd was filled with small hard objects to form a rattle. The opening of the gourd was sealed with gum.The images represented a story which was re-told by the player who was neither accompanied by another singer, nor instrument. By the time Routledge (1910) acquired a sample Gechande, the technique and story telling genre had been forgotten by the surviving Kikuyu. Apparently the singer would travel for a period of up to six months performing the Gechande along the way.
Stretched animal skin
The Kikuyu did not play drums, which is surprising for such a widespread instrument among the neighbours ( Akamba, Chuka etc.) THey however had a unique musical instrument that was made from a single-mebrane that was strectched on the ground, from where it was played. Since it could not be carried away, it must have been strecthed every time it was needed and then rolled away when it's use was over. No wonder it was not a collectable item for Museums. I have never seen one in use and the majority of the Kikuyu today would be surprised to know that it existed at all.
The Kikuyu used leg Jingles as percussion instruments. The jingles were made by blacksmiths who shaped a sheet metal to contain metal pieces or pebbles. The leg was moved rythmically with some force to accompany the music. When several singers moved their jingles to the same rythm, the effect was nice to the ear.
Coro - side-blown horns.
These were of two kinds - the straight horn of the oryx and the spiral horn of the greater kudu.
ciigamba - Rattles
Routledge described the rattles as "oval sheet of Iron with ends brought to a blunt point 6 Inch long folded over until the edges only 1/4 inch apart - the form produced being something like that of the banana fruit. Several bullets of Iron are enclosed… worn strapped In horizontal position above the knee joint." These were used to make a rhythmic accompaniment to the singing by stamping the foot in a choreographed manner.
The Wandindi was a one stringed musical instrument of the Kikuyu and other communities. The resonator was made of a calabash and piece of tight skin. A stick projected from the calabash and had a string attached to its extreme end, tightly from the resonator. The player made different sounds by sliding a finger or thumb on the string while using a bow on the string in the manner of a violin. A modern version seen with street performers in urban centers in Kenya uses a tin as a resonator. Some communities in Kenya still use this instrument in traditional ceremonies but the Kikuyu have abandoned it entirely.
In the video, a Kikuyu musician is using an accordion in a manner that mimics the wandindi single string instrument.