2011/2012 Yearbook Oral tradition and history

Music and dance

In each community, one finds an elaborate assortment of musical instruments. Take the Kuria of western Kenya, for instance. Folk Music of Kenya by George Senoga-Zake, Peoples and Cultures of Kenya by Andrew Fedders and Cynthia Salvadori and Traditional Music and Cultures of Kenya by Jens Finke document an impressive array of instruments from the Kuria among whom music and dance accompany almost every traditional ceremony and rite of passage.

First is the iritungu (lyre), a stringed instrument called nyatiti by the Luo, obokano by the Gusii, obukhana by the Marachi and lukhuje by the Tiriki. The instrument consists of a round wooden drum across which are tightened cow-hide or nylon strings (between two sticks and a crossbar) that are strummed by the player to resonate through the drum.The iritungu player is some kind of court poet attached to the chief. He specialises in extolling the military achievements of the community and acts as a kind of genealogical library for the community.

Second is ibirandi (isururu) – gourds half-filled with seeds or pebbles which provide percussive accompaniment to a dance performed by men, young boys and girls or elders during a wedding ceremony. Girls and women, sparkling in oil, flash neck-beads and coils of metal wire with their male colleagues appearing disguised as giants, an effect created by the heavy imitiamburi logs tied to the feet and thrust six to twelve inches above the ground. They also wear tall vertical ostrich feathers on their heads and elbows.

Third is embegete or egetomo, which are drums usually played to accompany daytime dances by boys and girls during an elder’s wedding. Fourth is the esegere horn, which is played during the isubo female dance to celebrate the pregnancy of a new bride six months into her pregnancy. Then there is the ntono, a simple musical gourd that resonates when the wire is strummed. The instrument features during post-circumcision dances for newly initiated girls and boys and during wedding ceremonies.

Among the Akamba, “dancing is the chief form of exercise and entertainment”, according to Mbiti. Akamba musical instruments include drums, whistles, reeds, bells, rattles, fiddles, flutes and string instruments. To add colour and pomp, the Akamba wear costumes that include feather hats for men and beads and bracelets for women.

Music, poetry and dance also feature quite a bit in traditional medical practice, which is found in virtually all Kenyan communities. Traditional healers are known to punctuate their practice with chants, drama and dance while dressed in awe-inspiring attire often from vegetation and animal skins.