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Title: Instruments de musique du monde—Languettes pincees (Centrafrique); performers not identified. Label: Le chant du monde. Format: CD. Catalogue#: LDX 274 675. Track: 29.

Contextual Associations

The likembe is a lamellaphone idiophone, and both of the instruments pictured and described here (the two gallery images) originated in ethnic groups living in the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The second instrument is ascribed to the Luba, but the precise ethnic association of the first instrument is not known. The name ‘likembe’ is being used here generically to refer to lamellaphones with: 1) a box-shaped resonator; 2) a U-shaped iron bridge; 3) from 8-12 lamellae in a V- or VI-arrangement; 4) a section cut out of the backside that facilitates the tying down of the pressure bar against the keys; 5) a soundhole on the back of the resonating chamber with which ‘wow’ effects can be produced; and 6) rattle rings slung around some lamellae between the bridge and pressure bar (Kubik 1999, p. 26). Both instruments pictured on this page fit this above description, even though they may look quite different from one another due to their respective ornamentation. In general, a likembe is made by the person who plays it for their own pleasure; it is not a professional or ensemble instrument, but well suited to being played during long walks or idle moments. The Luba likembe (gallery #2), which includes a crouching female human figure that is half the height of the instrument (see first detail photo), may be an exception to this rule. In Luba society, objects with sculptural elements often served as signs of their owner’s social status. The female figure on this instrument possesses an elaborate coiffure and scarification patterns, signs of high rank in matrilineal Luba society. In all likelihood, this likembe was inspired by a Luba prestige object but made for sale in the African art market. The other likembe is less visually dramatic, but the subtle geometric pattern inscribed on the soundboard of this well-used instrument might someday help in identifying its place of origin.


Both likembe are carved from solid pieces of hardwood that are hollowed out from one side to make a resonating chamber. The open side of the resonator is covered with a strip of wood and wax (see second detail photo), and one or two small holes are burnt into the backside of the box (see third detail photo). Further wood is removed from the backside above the resonating chamber, resulting in a thin board with partial sidewalls into which a series of small holes are burnt across the width of the instrument. The lamellae, which are made from narrow strips of scrap iron pounded flat, are attached to the instrument with copper wire. The ends of the lamellae that are anchored to the body run over a U-shaped metal bridge and a rectangular strip of wood (serving as a backrest) on the front side of the instrument (see both gallery photos). A metal pressure bar is laid across and perpendicular to the lamellae in between these two elements. The copper wire is then threaded through the holes in the body and over the pressure bar and pulled as taught as possible to firmly press the lamellae against the bridge and the backrest. This attachment procedure results in only the segment of a lamella that extends beyond the bridge being acoustically active; the longer this segment, the lower the pitch it produces relative to the shorter lamellae.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player holds the sides of the likembe between the palms of his hands with the keyboard side facing up. The thumbs are used to flex and release the acoustically active ends of the lamellae, which are arranged on both examples in a V-shape. With the tip of one or both middle fingers, the player can rapidly open and cover the hole/s on the backside of the resonator to add a ‘wow’ effect. The likembe in the first gallery photo almost certainly was equipped with more than the seven tongues currently found on the instrument, probably three additional ones for a total of ten lamellae. The Luba example is outfitted with eight keys. It is highly unlikely that the current pitches on either likembe are true to those when the instruments were actually in use, so they will not be reported here. Anyway, given the widespread distribution of this instrument and its idiosyncratic nature it is not possible to even in general terms present a normalized tuning pattern for this type of lamellaphone.


Although it is theorized that lamellaphones with plant fiber lamellae might have existed as far back as two-thousand years ago on the African continent, Kubik believes that the likembe, as pictured and described here, originated in the southern Congo region only as recently as the 19th century. He describes the rapid and far-reaching distribution of this basic design model as being fueled by the forces of colonialism, which stimulated unprecedented levels of labor migration and the mixing of heretofore-unfamiliar peoples in such contexts as mines, plantations, and factories.

Bibliographic Citations

Dournon, Geneviève, and Jean Schwarz. 1990. Instruments de musique du monde. CD and liner notes. Le Chant du Monde LDX 274 675.

Kubik, Gerhard. 1999. “African and African American Lamellophones: History, Typology, Nomenclature, Performers, and Intracultural Concepts.” In Turn Up the Volume!: A Celegration of African Music. ed. DjeDje, Jacqueline Cogdell. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, pp. 20-57.

________, and Peter Cooke. "Lamellophone [lamellaphone]." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed September 19, 2013,


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: Central Africa

Nation: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Formation: Luba

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

122.12 idiophone--lamellaphone (or plucked idiophone; lamellae, i.e. elastic plaques, fixed at one end, are flexed and then released to return to their position of rest) in board- or comb-form: the lamellae are attached to a board or cut out from a board like the teeth of a comb; with integral resonator

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: tongue - heteroglot

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: separate resonating space shared by multiple sonorous objects - built into instrument

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: flexing - direct

Sound exciting agent: fingertip/s, fingernail/s, finger-mounted pick/s

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: changing acoustical shape of resonator with fingerhole/s


9 in. height (first instrument) 13.5 in. height (second instrument)

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter