Kundi & Ngombi, Harps in the Central African Republic.

Finding unique cultural expressions in a country like the Central African Republic is difficult. Part of it is the lack of written resources about them. Part is that these cultural expressions seem to go beyond their borders into other countries. Every time I do a search, I get results from The Republic of the Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But I also think it is that because there are many ethnic groups, and the unification as a country has not meant an unification in ethnic groups and their cultures. This map gives one an idea of how diverse the peoples are:

Cr. Reddit

But searching and searching I found something that seems very prevalent in their country… harp creation and harp playing. And there is content written about it and their harps are many museums around the world so… here we go!

Harps in the Central African Republic are not only known for the music they produce but also for their beauty. They are also important works as sculptures significant in many religious and secular ceremonial functions, including dance, rituals and story-telling. The simplest have an oval or rectangular sound box, with an animal skin stretched across it and a curved wooden handle (or neck) attached to the sound box and to which the strings are fixed with tuning pegs.

The three most important elements in this instrument are the handle, the sound box and the strings. Remarkable craftsmanship is shown in the very specific form of the sound box. A wet animal skin (snake, lizard, ostrich, antelope) is stretched across a wooden frame, tied down with string and allowed to dry. In this way the skins spans the whole wooden frame of the instrument and on some instruments there are still clear traces of the strings that stretched the skin. (2)

There are two types of harps depending where the handle is attached:

The Kundi

The Kundi has the handle attached to the sound box by an opening or socket. This handle is often a carved human figure. (1) This instrument has skin stretched over it and they have pegs. the strings are made from animal hair, for example jiraffe tail hair. The word Kundi’ is a combine word: ‘Khun’ (pure, natural) and ‘-ndi’ (play). (2)

These are Zande, Azande or Mangbetu  peoples Kundi from northeastern Congo and the west of the Central African Republic.

Cr. The Smithsonian
Kundi made by the Azande. Cr. The British Museum.
Zande People including a Harpist. Cr. Wikimedia Commons

These are Ngbaka Kundi harps which have huge anthropomorphic figurines as part of the sound box or the handle:

Grinnell College Music Instrument Collection. Iowa, US.
Cr. annatosicrafts. com

The Ngombi

The Ngombi main characterisitc is that the handle is attached to a projection from the sound box.

Cr. Music Museum of Barcelona
Ngombi form Gabon. Cr. invaluable. com

Last you can read HERE the account of the travels of the following pair of harps from the Central African Republic to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix Arizona.


(1) Book: Culture and Customs of the Central African Republic by Jacqueline Woodfork. You can see the entire book online HERE.

(2) africamuseum. be

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