Zande lamellaphone

Zande lamellaphone
Other views of this artifact:

Accession Number:
[Southern Sudan] ?Northern Bahr el Ghazal ?Western Bahr el Ghazal ?Warab ?El Buheyrat ?Western Equatoria
Cultural Group:
Date Made:
By 1917
Wood Plant , Cane Plant , Plant Fibre , Mastic Resin Plant
Carved , Hollowed , Perforated , Tied
Total L = 323; bowl body (without handle/tail) = 248, W = 160, diam hole in base = 13; handle L = 50, W = 20.7, th = 10.5, diam suspension hole = 9; 'tail' L = 22, W = 17.2, th = 8; soundboard L = 240, W = 155, diam hole = 15; total height soundboard and
403.4 g
Local Name:
billi nakurungba?
Other Owners:
Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson, probably collected in the period immediately before World War I (1909-1914) [RTS 1/6/2004].
Field Collector:
Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson
PRM Source:
Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson
Donated 1917
Collected Date:
By 1917
Lamellaphone made in several pieces. The lower part consists of an oval resonator bowl carved from a single piece of orangey-brown wood (Pantone 728C), that has darkened over much of the surface area. The upper edge varies from slightly flattened to sharply cut, and has narrow tongues of wood extending from either end. The upper lug is slightly longer, with flat upper and lower surfaces and a rectangular section; the sides have been partially notched, and it has a circular hole through the lower part, perhaps for suspension or a carrying loop. The lug or 'tail' opposite has been carved as a short rectangular tab, with no further embellishment. The bowl itself has has a convex underside with a faceted or fluted surface where the wood has been shaved in narrow strips along the length of the object, with a small sound hole bored near the centre of the underside.

The mouth of this bowl has been sealed with a sounding board that matches its oval shape, and is slightly convex across its width. This has been perforated twice down either long side edge and once at the base, with narrow strips of yellow plant fibre passing through holes in the bowl edge below and tied off to secure the two parts (Pantone 7401C). There are 3 further ties of this kind, placed slightly in from the edge of the soundboard, where the fibre passes through a pair of holes in the upper part only. It is not clear what these are meant to secure. There are some gaps around the edges where the bowl and soundboard join, and these have been filled with a black gummy or resinous material, that has partially worn away, leaving only a stain where it had once been placed (Pantone black 7C). At the centre of the soundboard is a small circular sound hole, almost directly above the sound hole in the base that was described above. 2 narrow strips of cane have been laid across the width of the soundboard, between handle and sound hole, to form the bridge and backrest. Long flexible narrow cane strips were then laid at right angles across these to form the tongues; these are cut flat across the top ends, but have rounded points at the other end, arranged over the sound hole in a curve. They are orangey brown in colour (Pantone 729C). The wooden soundboard has been perforated in the space between bridge and backrest, and flat strips of vegetable fibre wrap around each tongue to tie them together in a bar. Thinner fibres, in this case probably grass, have been used to tie the upper parts of the tongues together near the handle end; these are a similar colour.

The object is nearly complete, but has lost some parts of its sealing gum; it has a weight of 403.4 grams. The lamellaphone has a total length of 323 mm, of which the bowl body is 248 mm long and 160 mm wide, while the hole in its base has a diameter of 13 mm; the handle is itself 50 mm long, 20.7 mm wide and 10.5 mm thick, and its suspension hole has a diameter of 9 mm. The 'tail' is 22 mm long, 17.2 mm wide and 8 mm thick. The soundboard is 240 mm long and 155 mm wide, with a hole in the centre measuring 15 mm in diameter; together soundboard and resonator bowl have a height of 65 mm. The tongues have a maximum length of 196 mm and are 5 mm wide and 2 mm thick; the bridge is 59 mm long and the backrest is 64 mm long, while the cross bar of tied fibres is 46 mm long and 7 mm wide.

Collected by Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson, probably between 1909 and 1914, according to his biographical history, in the Bahr el Ghazal region. At the time this object was collected, the Bahr el Ghazal province was much larger than it is today, extending from roughly the Bahr el Arab all the way to the border with the Belgian Congo; this area is now divided into the districts of Western Bahr el Ghazal, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, and parts of Warab, El Buheyrat and Western Equatoria.

This instrument would be played by plucking the keys, or lamellae. It is probably the instrument described by Larken as follows:
"The old nakurungba, which is now no longer seen, it having become old fashioned ten years ago, consisted of an oval bowl of wood, with a wooden sounding board, on which were fixed five to seven keys of iron or cane, resting, a short distance from their points of attachment, on a transverse bridge of wood. The centre keys were the longest and produced the deepest notes, and the outermost the shortest; a loose ring of metal was placed round each key, which added an attractive jangle to the sound. The instrument was about six inches long, four wide and two deep, thus being of a conveniently portable size, and at one time it was in everybody's hands whether they were walking along a path or sitting in their homes ... Its new form is a shallow box, twelve inches long, six wide and two deep, the top surface projecting over the lower by an inch or two so as to allow for the fixing of the keys, which are arranged in the same way as above described. It is hollowed out from the side, the aperture being neatly closed by a strip of the same wood secured in its place by resin. A small hole is made in the lower surface, and this is closed or opened by the application or withdrawal of a winger to regulate the volume of sound" (P.M. Larken, 1926, "An Account of the Zande", Sudan Notes and Records IX no. 1, p. 104). The lamellae are known as billi in Zande. In this case, there are no iron jangles, but compare this form with 1979.20.188, a lamellaphone from the Southern Larim which incorporates a similar feature, and which the locals played while walking "to make time go fast."

The style of carving, particularly the fluted sections, is seen on other Zande woodwork, such as various types of bowl (1948.2.137 and 140), stool (1948.2.141) and rubbing board oracles (1931.66.36).

Primary Documentation:
Accession Book Entry [VI, p. 54] - 1917 [pencil insert] 25 [end insert] MAJOR R.G. GAYER-ANDERSON , R.A.M.C. The Lodge, Old Marston, Oxon [pencil insert, p. 56] 72 [end insert] - Musical instrument of sansa type with 6 cane tongues, called billi , Niam Niam, Bahr-el-Gazal.
Accession Book Entry
[page opposite 54] - A gift to the Pitt Rivers Museum in memory of Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson, Pasha, his twin brother Colonel J.G. Gayer-Anderson, C.M.G., D.S.O. [page opposite 56] 1917.25.72 - Number given HLR.

Card Catalogue Entry - There is no further information on the tribes catalogue card [RTS 6/2/2004].

Related Documents File - Two letters dated 30/03/1917 and 13/04/1917 from the donor to Henry Balfour regarding the donation of the collection to the museum [EB 12/11/2001]. These indicate that the material was collected by Robert Gayer-Anderson himself, chiefly from the areas of Nuba, Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal during 5 years he spent in the Sudan, and that they were given to the museum as an unconditional gift [RTS 5/12/2003]. The note in the accession book calling this gift 'in memory of' R.G. Gayer-Anderson is therefore somewhat enigmatic, as both Robert and his twin brother (Thomas G., not J.G.) were alive at the time of the transfer [RTS 5/12/2003].

Pitt Rivers Museum label - Billi , instrument of sansa type, NIAM-NIAM. CENT. AFRICA. Pres. by Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson, 1917 [rectangular metal-edged tag, tied to object; RTS 22/2/2005].

Funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council
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