Contextual Associations

The nkangala is a plucked stick-zither chordophone of Malawi. Gerhard Kubik (p. 321) explains that the nkangala mouth bow is an instrument that was brought to what is now known as Malawi in the 1800s by migrating Angoni people, who originally came from what is now known as the Republic of South Africa. The nkangala is also found amongst the Nguni peoples of South Africa, where it is called the umqangala by the Zulu, Thonga, and Swazi. This is an instrument played almost exclusively by girls and women in times of solitude.


The nkangala is made of hollow cane from a water reed known locally as bango.  The traditional sisal string is, on this instrument, substituted with nylon line. It is tied securely around each end of the reed with enough tension to give the reed a slight bend.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

One end of the bow is pressed on the right corner of the player's mouth, the string being plucked with a small plectrum in the right hand. Two fundamental pitches are produced, one by the full length of the string, the other by stopping the far-end of the string with the middle finger of the left hand to achieve a note about a whole step higher. Various harmonics above these two fundamentals are brought out by changing the shape of the mouth cavity.


Like musical bows the world over, the nkangala is believed to have evolved from the hunting bow at some distant time in history. It most likely originated well before the 19th century northward migration of Nguni people from South Africa to Malawai.

Bibliographic Citations

Ellert. H. 1984. The Material Culture of Zimbabwe. Harare: Longman Zimbabwe.

Kirby, Percival R. 1968. The Musical Instruments of the Native Races of South Africa. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Kubik, Gerhard.  1998. “Intra-African Streams of Influence.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.1. ed. Ruth M. Stone. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 293-326.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: East Africa

Nation: Malawi

Formation: Angoni

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

311.121.11 chordophone--mono-heterochord musical bow (the bow has one heterochord string only): without resonator, without tuning noose

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - bow

Resonator design, chordophone: mouth on string

String courses: single

Vibrational length: string carrier to string carrier

String tension control: stretch and knot

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretless fingerboard)


28.3 in length

Primary Materials

reed - cane
string - synthetic

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin