Some places have oom-pah-pah. Some have the hurdy-gurdy. Some have the tam-tam. Some have the kazoo. To this clan of musical instruments (and styles) with onomatopoeic names add this pleasant piece of work from East Africa: the nyatiti.

The nyatiti is an eight-stringed lyre-type instrument with a wooden frame and a gourd base. It’s popular among the Luo people of Kenya and Tanzania. It name is thought to come from the sound of the lowest string (“nya”) and two of the higher strings (“titi”); since it’s played in an arpeggiated style without stops on the strings, a three-note pattern of low-high-high is common enough.

There’s nothing about the sound of it that would make an Anglophone think immediately of “nya,” mind you – we think of that as a taunting nasal sound, “nyah-nyah.” (Oh, yes, by the way: it’s like “nyah,” not like “nye a.”) The higher strings, too, are a little lower than what you might expect from “titi” in our world filled with high clear bell-type sounds. Sound impressions and onomatopoeia do have a strong cultural basis.

For that matter, you might expect something more Polynesian, what with the faint taste of Tahiti in this word. Or you might expect something ancient Egyptian, reminiscent of Nefertiti, the wife of the pharaoh Akhnaten. You’d be too far south and possibly too modern for her, but at least you’d be in Africa, and you could draw two happenstance connections: first, the headdress of Nefertiti has a fan-like shape vaguely reminiscent of that of the nyatiti, perhaps with her head as the gourd; second, Akhnaten is the name of an opera by Philip Glass, who makes much use of arpeggios – but actually far more in the Balinese line, not the nyatiti playing style. Oh well.

If you look on YouTube for videos of people playing the nyatiti, you will find quite a few. You will find videos of westerners (and East Asians) playing it in a mannered, calm style, held at table or chest height. And you will find videos of Luo people playing it the way you’re supposed to, down at ground level between their legs, with one foot tapping against the frame and the other tapping bells, playing a lively tune and often singing along.

Someone went to the trouble of putting together a YouTube playlist of 78 videos of nyatiti music. Have a listen to at least one (I recommend number 57, if this blog insists on starting it at number 1 – click on the menu top left and scroll down):

If you’d like to find out about other stringed instruments you may have been unaware of, Iva Cheung did a series of tweets on them, with videos: https://storify.com/IvaCheung/lesser-known-stringed-instruments

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