The Beat that drives
In the Lüo community of Western Kenya, the eight string instrument known as nyatiti does not come without gara (iron cast bells), oduong’o (iron cast ring) worn around the right big toe and mbero (orindi, then - small stool) however nyatiti and gara are inseparable like two brothers.
The Lüo mythology offers us the momentous story of two powerful brothers, founders of the two major Lüo subtribes, one to the East, followers of Arwa and the other one to the West, followers of Podho. The elder brother Podho exiled Arwa after he had used his brother’s leadership spear to chase away an elephant which was threatening the tribe. As Arwa took refuge with a lady of the forest she offered him magic beads to protect him and returned to his people. Podho and his younger brother Arwa, sons of Ramogi and Nyipir, had another dispute. This time it was over the magic beads of which one had been swallowed by the son of Podho. It resulted in the parting ways as Podho was forced to hand over the swallowed bead. It is what created the two subtribes. This story represents the strong bond between the Lüo people as inseparable brothers and the magic beads are now found in the metal open shell of the gara.
Gara is the beat that drives the melody of the nyatiti. Similar to the bells used by Indian classical dancers, they are worn around the ankle but in this case only to the right one. As Jathum (musician) plays nyatiti and sings he will also hit the ground with a movement of the heel brushing the floor with strength and care to make the gara bells resonate. There are two bell sizes on the same set which can be used by the musician to tune the nyatiti. Each piece has two metal pea shaped beads encased in an open shell shaped metal envelope. The bells used to be attached to a piece of leather which would be wrapped around the ankle. However today you will often see them on a rope on their own before being wrapped around a piece of fabric purposely made which is itself wrapped around the ankle.
Today there are only very few gara makers. One notable maker is Olige who not only is a skilled blacksmith but also a nyatiti player. This means that he particularly knows very well what needs to be achieved in terms of the sound of gara. Gara making is a skill which is sadly fading in time just like making the traditional strings of nyatiti out of tendons. We forget how important gara is. Without it, nyatiti music would lose its soul.