Jorge de Torres, Project Cataloguer, African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum
Until 16 August, lovers of African music and history (and all visitors eager to learn a bit about them) have another reason to visit the British Museum. The Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 presents a wonderful 19th-century lyre from Nubia (northern Sudan), with strong spiritual associations. This type of lyre, known as kissar in the Islamic world, was used at important occasions such as weddings, but also in special ceremonies of a series of cults known generically as Zār, common in the area of Egypt, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. These ceremonies were intended to heal spiritual possession (thought to be behind some medical conditions, such as epilepsy), the music being a key tool to placate and expel the evil spirits.
Although the Zār cults seem to have appeared in Ethiopia during the 18th century and spread to other areas of Africa and perhaps the Middle East, the stringed instruments used in these ceremonies have a much older origin. Harps and lyres have been present in Africa for thousands of years, affirmed by their depictions in many Ancient Egyptian reliefs, paintings and papyri dating from as far back as the Old Kingdom (about 2686–2181 BC). Harps have been found and depicted in Egyptian tombs, such as those to be seen in Room 61 at the British Museum. These harps are usually known as bow or arched harps due to their shape, having a vaulted body of wood and a neck perpendicular to the resonant face on which the strings are wound.
The use of bow and arched harps seems to have been transmitted from Egypt to West and East Africa, where slightly different versions can be found from Mauritania to Uganda. Sizes vary but range from small harps that can be held against the body to bigger models that need to be placed on the ground. The shape, however, is almost always the same, and very similar to the Egyptian models made 4,500 years ago. The expansion and distribution of these harps can be traced in a perhaps unexpected way – through their depiction in rock art.
Although not very common, scenes of dancing and figures playing instruments exist in northern African rock art, and while cataloguing the collection of images from Chad as part of the African rock art image project, I came across several depictions of harps almost identical to those known through ethnographic collections and archaeological excavations. The paintings very accurately depict bow harps, either in isolation or being played by a musician. In some cases, the figures seem to be playing for other people in scenes surrounded by huts, cattle, women and children. In all cases, the neck of the harp is held near to the body of the musician.
So far, five examples of these painted harps have been found, all of them in the western side of the Ennedi Plateau in Chad, a sandstone massif near the border with Sudan, carved by erosion in a series of superimposed terraces, alternating plains and ragged cliffs crossed by seasonal rivers (wadis). The numerous cliffs and gorges of the Ennedi house images of many local styles, sometimes contemporary, sometimes corresponding to successive periods. These images and styles reveal an enormous richness of techniques, themes and artistic conventions, with some of the most original depictions in Saharan rock art. The harps are a very good example of this creativity, as they all appear concentrated in a relatively small area while they seem to be absent in the rest of the Sahara desert.
It is difficult to know the contexts in which these instruments were played. Some of the paintings present the musicians in rather prosaic scenes (either near the houses or a person milking a cow, for example), but examples like the lyre displayed in Room 3 or those found in Egypt exemplify their use in complex rituals or ceremonies. It is most probable that the same object could have very different uses depending on the context, the audience or the music played. While in Western societies music is commonly associated with leisure or culture, and considered something to be enjoyed, in many cultures music is an integral part of daily life, used to keep and transmit knowledge, to summon protection, to remember ancestors or to regulate social and economic activities. The powerful presence of the Sudanese lyre displayed in Room 3 recalls the idea of music as a powerful tool in north-eastern African societies throughout history, used to heal and to build social narratives which explain and address the spiritual world.
Rafael Perez Arroyo (2001): Egypt: Music in the age of pyramids, Madrid, Editorial Centro de Estudios Egipcios
The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on in Room 3 at the British Museum until 16 August 2015. The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.
For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.
Through summer 2015 the British Museum is Celebrating Africa. Explore and debate a variety of African cultural issues through a series of events and displays.