Sleeper of the month – a Mangbetu harp

Image courtesy of De Zwaan.

Image courtesy of De Zwaan.

Earlier this month the Amsterdam auctionhouse De Zwaan sold a private collection of African art. Lot 3639 was an anthropomorphic harp of the Mangbetu region, estimated € 300-400. It sold for € 34,000 (excluding the buyer’s premium), that’s more than 100 times the lower estimate ! De Zwaan didn’t know this same harp was sold by Christie’s, London on 25 July 1978 (lot 148) – for £ 360. The resonance box of this harp features two figures; a rare and unique detail. I have never seen a similar footrest (?) at the end. Most likely, the buyer still possessed more information justifying this high price.

UPDATE: one day after this post, the buyer presented himself to me in Brussels; he did not had any additional information but was extremely delighted with the acquisition.

It’s impossible to attribute this harp with absolute certainty to the Mangbetu. Cultural exchanges were common througout the region and musical instruments clearly spread from one group to another as a result of migrations, cultural assimilation, borrowing, and exchange. We can be quite certain that harps were introduced into the area where the Mangbetu live by two different groups: the Bantu speakers, who came from the west during the last millenium, and the Ubangian speakers, who came from the northwest in the last two centuries.

Mangbetu harps (domu) have been considered in depth as art objects, but little is known of their musical uses (there even don’t exist recordings of Mangbetu harp music). They evidently appeared among the Mangbetu sometime after the mid-1870s and reached a peak of popularity during the early colonial period. Beautiful harps decorated with carved heads at the ends of their bows were made in the area at that time. The custom of carving human heads on harps was widespread among the Azande and Barambo in the north, but Schweinfurth asserted that the Mangbetu had no stringed instruments of any kind (1874, 2:117). After the turn of the century, however, many of these instruments were made with carved heads representing the elongated Mangbetu style. These harps may have been introduced into the region of the Mangbetu kingdoms after the time of Schweinfurth’s visit. Hutereau and Lang both claimed that the Meje and the Mangbetu adopted the harp from the Azande (Hutereau 1912; Lang fieldnote 2105). Many of these instruments were collected by Lang and others between 1910 and 1915.

Despite the claims of Hutereau and Lang, linguistic evidence suggests that the harp may have been introduced from the south. The Mangbetu use the Bantu name domu for the harp. Harps may have been first introduced and used south of the Uele by the Mangbele (now assimilated to the Mangbetu but originally a Bantu group) and the Matchaga. Quite probably some Mangbetu groups, most likely the Mangbele, and other Bantu groups such as the Budu had at first a simple version of the instrument and then modified it in the style of the Ubangian speakers to the north. The carving of elongated heads on the harps is most probably an extension of a northern tradition.

The Mangbetu harp had five strings, reflecting the traditional pentatonic tuning system and commonly of plant fiber (more specific the midribs of oil palm leaves). The tuning pegs of the Mangbetu harp were on the player’s right (if the instrument was held with the carved figure facing the player), whereas the Zande type (kundi) has its pegs on the opposite side. Resonators are usually of an oval or hourglass shape. There is considerable variation in the angle of neck attachment and in the curvature of the bow. Often the conjunction between the neck and body is wrapped with cord. The carved figure forms the entire neck of some the more elaborately decorated instruments. Nearly all those harps cataloged as Mangbetu in the American Museum of Natural History collection have anthromorphic carving. Some of the older Mangbetu today claim that the heads on the harps represented Queen Nenzima and King Yangala, and that after their deaths the custom of carving them gradually declined. Many harps produced in the first quarter of the 20th century had full figures – male of female – carved into their bows. Many types of material were incorporated into the carved forms. The bows, of various lengths, were made of wood or ivory. A variety of animal skins was used to cover the resonators, including pangolin scales, okapi and leopard pelts, and the skins of monitors and several kinds of snake. Combinations of the above materials, along with the anthropomorphic bows, created visually striking instruments.

Schweinfurth gave a detailed description about the importance of music in the local daily life: ‘Apart from the special characteristics that distinguish them, more or less pronounced marks of race that pick out the different groups of the human family, the Niam-Niams are men of the same nature as others; they have the same passions, the same joys, the same pains as us. I have exchanged any number of jokes with them, I have taken part in their childish games, accompanied by the sound of their drums or mandolins, and I have found in them the same gaiety and verve found elsewhere.’ & ‘But the Niam-Niams have other pleasures; they have an instinctive love of art, and owe to it more elevated pleasures. Passionate about music, they extract from their mandolins sounds which resonate in the deepest fibers of their being and which thrown them into genuine intoxication. The concerts they offer themselves are of unimaginable lengths. Piaggia has said that a Niam-Niam would play his instrument for twenty-four hours without leaving it for a second, forgetting to eat or drink; and even though I know well this people’s appetite, I believe Piaggia was right. Their favorite instrument is related at once to the harp and mandolin. It resembles the former by the disposition of its strings and the latter by the form of the body. Built precisely according to the laws of acoustics, the soundboard has two openings. The strings, solidly held by pegs, are sometimes made of vegetable fibers, sometimes of giraffe tail-hair. As for the music played on these mandolins, it is highly monotonous; it would be difficult to discern in it the slightest semblance of melody. It is never more than an accompaniment to a recitation, sung in a plaintive (even whining) tone, and of a decidedly nasal timbre. I have many times seen friends going arm in arm playing this way, beating time with their heads, and plunging each other into a profound ecstasy.’ (1874:210 & 222-223)

An Azande playing a harp. Photographed by Herbert Lang in Bafuka’s village, March 1913. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, #224095)

An Azande playing a harp. Photographed by Herbert Lang in Bafuka’s village, March 1913. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, #224095)