Rapasa Nyatrapasa

© Sapat Opips


The nyatiti is an eight stringed lyre from the western part of Kenya in East Africa. It is popularly played by the Lüō tribe from Siaya and some parts of Nyanza region. The nyatiti is made up of a resonator covered with cow-skin, a bridge and two handles connecting the resonator to the head which holds the eight strings from the bottom. The strings used to be made out of cattle tendons.

Rapasa compares the fragility of the nyatiti to “TITI” which is the Swahili term for breast. He believes that just like taking care of our bodies, playing this instrument requires a lot of patience and determination. To achieve the skills and understanding of this instrument one would need to live with a master in the village in order to experience their living style and cultural practices. It is more than just an instrument, it is the voice of the community. It addresses complex issues to help convey more positive alternative way of living style. It is also a way for the Lüō language to be carried through time. In the traditional setting sons are not directly taught by their fathers in order for them not to be out-shined by their sons. Lüō customs does not allow for the sons to practice the instrument within the same homestead as their fathers holding the same symbol. This does not prevent the son to learn and play the nyatiti. In most cases they would learn the art of keeping the tradition from other masters within the community.

As it is known as a solo act, nyatiti  players will traditionally pluck the lyre, sing and maintain the beat at the same time. In order to keep the beat, the players tie gara or bells on the right ankle and wear an oduong’o metal ring on the right toe which they hit against the lower handle of the nyatiti. They would sit on a small low level stool called orindi or then. For many years it has been played by man only. It would be taboo to see a women playing or even holding the nyatiti. However its special dance which is called Otenga (nyatiti dance) is performed by women. It involves a lot of shoulder shaking.

Rapasa Nyatrapasa - Nyatiti making

© Sabrina Oduor

With time and ongoing changes in women’s place in society it allowed an interest for women to practice this instrument. There is a symbolism in the eight strings of the nyatiti in that the lower (high pitch) four strings represent the first four days after a man’s life from birth and the upper (low pitch) four strings represent the first four days after his death.

Nyatiti music is an expression of gratitude. It acts as a symbol of unification and respect within the lake region. Many believe that Benga, a popular genre from Kenya comes from the nyatiti and other Lüō tradition music. The sound is unique, defined by the rich experimented instrumental textures and rhythmic influences.

Rapasa Nyatrapasa - Nyatiti making

© Rapasa Otieno Oduor



In the Lüo community of Western Kenya, the eight string instrument known as nyatiti does not come without gara, oduong’o (ring worn around the right big toe) and then (orindi, 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.