The Queen of Clan
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.
The nyatiti player (jathum) Rapasa Nyatrapasa Otieno confirms playing this instrument requires a lot of patience and determination. To achieve the skills and understanding of this instrument one would needs to live with a master in the village in order to experience their social living style and cultural practices. It is more than just an instrument, it is the voice of the community and its core. It addresses complex issues to help convey more positive alternative way of living style and support in the grieving process. It is the heart of events in the life of a person such as birth, rite of passage, marriage proposals and wedding ceremonies. Healing does not stop at funeral ceremonies, with the small version nyagwero, which is also used for cleansing by healers to help the rehabilitation of non conformists and convicts who served their time, into the community. With the dominant practice pakruok (poem) by jathum and its audience it is a way for Dholuo, the language of the Lüō people, to be carried through time. Pakruok is a practice of improvised poetry which is started as a child which helps them with self confidence in public speaking. Pakruok is integral to nyatiti music.
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. If they do, it is usually done without the support of the percussive bells (gara) and the ring (oduong'o) while he learns as he mirrors his father's gestures. When the father retires he hands the gara and oduong'o over to his son who is then considered jathum. In many cases aspiring nyatiti players would learn this art from other masters within the community.
As it is known as one man ensemble, jathum would traditionally pluck the lyre, sing and maintain the beat at the same time. In order to keep the beat, the players tie gara (iron casts 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, mbero 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. Nyatiti music has a special dance which is called otenga (nyatiti dance) is performed by both women and men populary known as jomiel. It involves a lot of vigorous shoulder shaking.
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. (last four days before his burial)
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.