Also:       marimba      kissange      

Contextual Associations

The nyonganyonga is a lamellaphone idiophone of the Sena people, primarily of the Lower-Zambezi region of Mozambique but who also reside today in parts of Zimbabwe and Malawi. Distinctive design and construction features (wave-pattern decoration forged into top-end of each lamellae; unusually broad pressure bar attached with rivets) and other more frequently encountered features (body made from integral block of wood with a “bell-type” resonator hollowed out from its bottom side; V-shaped lamellae layout with longest keys on right side and a second tier of lamellae on left side) associate with one another a half-dozen or so lamellaphones that appear in online and published sources as originating from the Lower-Zambezi region and/or being associated with the Sena. Beyond these similarities, the documented nyonganyonga vary greatly in regard to their number of lamellae (from as few as seventeen to well over thirty) and their arrangement (most have three manuals, but some have an upper-right manual in addition to the more common right, lower-left, and upper-left manuals). The single documented instrument that is the closest match to the instrument pictured and described here is found in Kubik 1998 (pp. 233-234). It was collected (but not necessarily made) in the coastal city of Quelimane in 1893 by W. Joest and is today in the musical instrument collection of the Museum Völkerkunde, Berlin. Acquisition information accompanying this instrument provides the name “kissange”, but Joest’s source of this name and how he procured it are not given. What we probably have here is an old (perhaps 19th-century) Sena nyonganyonga, a form of lamellaphone that continued to evolve throughout the ensuing decades so that contemporary instruments bearing the same name have many more lamellae. No reference has been found regarding specific social settings in which the nyonganyonga is performed, so it is most likely used, like so many other African lamellaphones, for the personal entertainment of its performer.


The body of this nyonganyonga is made from a slightly fan-shaped block of wood (gallery #1 [front] and detail #1 [back]) partially hollowed out from its bottom side (detail #2) to create a resonating space. This soundboard design is labeled in the literature on lamellaphones as “bell-shaped”. The front-side of this body has integral raised sides and a thin, non-integral backrest for the keys running across its top. Eighteen arched iron lamellae of varying lengths (detail #3) with decorative top-ends (detail #4) and flattened and pointed plucking ends are attached to the board so that their plucked ends form a ‘V’ with the longest (bass) lamellae to the right and lower- (six lamellae) and upper- (three lamellae) manuals on the left side. A pressure bar (detail #5) is used to create considerable downward pressure on the lamellae, which come in contact with the body of the instrument at two points: the decorative ends are firmly pressed against the thin wood backrest; the lamellae are also pressed against a low and straight iron bridge imbedded in the soundboard and its raised edges (this bridge is located 2.4 inches below the upper end of the soundboard). The contact point between each individual lamella and this bridge articulates its sounding length and the pitch it produces. The downward pressure of the lamellae against the backrest and bridge is created with an atypically-broad iron pressure bar (detail #5) that runs across the width of the soundboard and over and perpendicular to the lamellae. It appears that the downward pressure necessary to make the sounding of the lamellae possible is produced with three rivets, the heads of which press against the backside of the board (detail #6), the shanks of which pass through aligned holes drilled in the board and the flat pressure bar, and the ends of which are flattened against the pressure bar as they are hammered into heads at the time of manufacture. This instrument no longer has its buzzing device, which must have been tied to the instrument and resting over the lower-half of the front side of the instrument (see Kubik 1998 p. 234)

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player holds the left and right sides of the nyonganyonga between the palms of his hands with the keyboard side facing up. The instrument can be wedged, with a stick, into a bowl-shaped gourd resonator, which can have further buzzing devices added to its rim. The performer uses his thumbs right-hand index finger to flex and release the acoustically active ends of the lamellae, which are arranged in a V-shape. It appears that all eighteen of the instruments keys are original and positioned as they were when the instrument was manufactured. However, it is highly unlikely that the instrument’s current tuning pattern is true to that of when it was actually in use, so it will not be reported here. That said, it is likely that it was tuned to a heptatonic (seven-tone) scale covering a range of approximately one-and-a-half octaves (with several pitches duplicated). See and hear a modern-day nyonganyonga (with a few more keys than the specimen described here) being performed using this link. Note that the right-hand part is in parallel octaves, with the thumb plucking downward on the lower-pitched lamella and the index finger upwards from the bottom side of the shorter lamella.


While African lamellaphones, with plant material rather than iron lamellae, probably originated in West-Central Africa early in the first millennium C.E. and gradually spread to the Central, East and South Africa over the course of several centuries, there is archaeological evidence at Kumadzulo, in Zambia, of iron lamellae that have indirectly been dated to 500-700 CE. European mention of lamellaphones in the area now known as Mozambique began as early as 1586 when a Portuguese missionary by the name of João dos Santos gave a description of one from his travels. The Zambezi River region of South East Africa has been a center for metal working and lamellaphone technology for the past millennium, and it has been speculated that lamellaphone design ideas originating in this region spread far and wide, taking on many distinct local forms over time (see Tracey 1972). However, it is not possible to reconstruct exactly how and when the nyonganyonga described here evolved due to an absence of reliable historical documentation.

Bibliographic Citations

Kubik, Gerhard. 1998. Kalimba, Nsansi, Mbira—Lamellophone in Afrika. Des Museums für Völkerkunde neue Folge 68 Muskethnologie X. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde.

________. 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, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40069

 “Objet ETHMU 005675”, Musée d'ethnographie Geneva (Switzerland) website, accessed 01/05/2019: https://www.ville-ge.ch/meg/musinfo_public.php?id=005675

“Objet ETHMU 006425”, Musée d'ethnographie Geneva (Switzerland) website, accessed 01/05/2019: https://www.ville-ge.ch/meg/musinfo_public.php?id=006425

Tracey, Andrew. 1972. “The Original African Mbira?” African Music5/2: 85-104.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: East Africa

Nation: Mozambique

Formation: Sena

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: none


7.9 in. length of body 5.1 in width at top of body 5.8 in. at bottom of body 4.6 in. width of body cavity opening 3.1 to 3.9 in. depth of body cavity 4.1 to 5.9 in. lengths of shortest and longest keys 1.7 to 3.5 in. vibrating lengths of shortest and longest keys

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter