harp (Ngbaka)

Also:       ngombi      

Title: Music from the Northern Congo 1-Sudanic Languages--Zilo; Mozua Manzali, kundi (field recording by Hugh Tracey--see Bibliography). Label: International Library of African Music. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDMOA22. Track: 13.

Contextual Associations

This harp is a plucked open-harp chordophone most likely of the Ngbaka people whose homeland is between the Congo and Ubangi Rivers of far northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This group is known for its anthropomorphic harps the surface detail of which includes one particular identifying feature--a vertical ridge of scars bisecting the forehead, a scarification pattern found on the foreheads of Ngbaka men. Ngbaka sculptural renderings of the human face are also often heart-shaped. Cowrie shells imbedded into the wood head are used for the figure’s eyes. Anthropomorphic harps of some central African peoples represent important figures such as deities or legendary figures; it is not known if that is the case with this harp. The name ‘ngombi’ is used somewhat generically in the literature to refer to harps from this region of the DRC, although it is not known with certainty that the Ngbaka use this term for their harps. The audio clip provided on this page is an example of music played on a 5-string open arch harp (called kundi) from northern DRC. It is intended to provide a general idea of the sound of the Ngbaka harp, but is actually an example from a different ethnic group, the Zande.


The instrument is constructed from two pieces of wood. The main portion is carved from a block of wood in the shape of a male body the boxy rectangular torso of which is hollowed out to serve as the instrument’s resonating chamber. This chamber is covered with a thick reptile skin (likely from a lizard) that is nailed to the edges of the resonator opening. A second piece of wood constitutes the instrument’s (not the figure’s) neck. One end of this arched stick-like piece is carved square to fit snugly into a square hole carved into the top of the sculpted head (like a cork fits into a bottle). At the other end of the neck are drilled five holes to receive as many friction-tuning pegs of wood. The current strings, made of cotton cord, are very likely not original to the instrument. However, they, like the original strings, are secured around the end of the tuning pegs and pass through a line of small holes punctured in the resonator membrane. Beneath that surface (i.e., inside the resonator) they are tied around small sticks. When a tuning peg is tightened, the string is held in tension by the resistance created when the small stick pushes up against the membrane.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

No picture of a Ngbaka harp being played was encountered, so it is not known how this particular harp would be held and sounded. It is not uncommon in the northern DRC region for open harps such as this one to be held in front of the player with the figure facing away from him, the sides of the figure’s ‘torso’ between the player’s palms and a few fingers of both hands available for plucking the strings. That there are five strings on this instrument strongly suggest that it would be tuned to a pentatonic scale, but, again, no literature on Ngbaka music was found that could verify this speculation (but many harps from this region are tuned to pentatonic scales, even when they have more than five strings). In general, small harps such as this one are played by singers accompanying themselves.


Anthropomorphic arch harps with the neck emerging from the head of the human figure have a very limited distribution in Africa. Other sorts of anthropomorphic harps are found in surrounding areas, but harps of the type pictured here are restricted to a territory east of the confluence of the Ubangi and Congo Rivers. Why this is so and what it tells us about the origin and age of this instrument type is unclear.

Bibliographic Citations

DeVale, Sue Carole. 1984. “6. African harps.” NGDMI v.2: 156-158.

________. 1989. “ African Harps: Construction, Decoration, and Sound.” In Sounding Forms: African Musical Instruments. ed. Marie-Therese Brincade. New York: American Federation of Arts, p. 53-61.

Laurenty, J. S. 1960. Les cordophones du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi. Tervuren: Musee Royal du Congo Belge.

“Ngbaka Information.” Art and Life in Africa Online. University of Iowa. Accessed October 30, 2013:

Tracey, Hugh. n.d. Music from the Northern Congo 1-Sudanic Languages. CD and liner notes. International Library of African Music CDMOA22.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: Central Africa

Nation: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Formation: Ngbaka

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

322.112 chordophone--open arched harp - Wachsmann type 2: the tanged neck fits tightly into a hole at the narrow end of the resonator like a cork in a bottle; the plane of the strings lies at right angles to the sound-table; the harp has no pillar

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: harp - open

Resonator design, chordophone: box with membrane soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: soundboard to tuning peg

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: one


19.3 in. height

Primary Materials

membrane - reptile skin
string - cotton
shell - cowrie

Entry Author

Roger Vetter