Making More than Music

Artist unknown (Tabwa peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Lamellophone (kankobele), 20th century
Wood, iron
Fowler Museum at UCLA, X86.1890; Gift of Helen and Dr. Robert Kuhn

About the Artwork

Rhythmic sounds of the forge reverberate beyond the hearth when hot iron is struck by hammers and bellows are pumped with air. This measured resonance translates as “music,” and is important to iron production from beginning to end. Music is also produced using forged iron instruments that are known as idiophones. Idiophones create sound through the vibrating core of their principal material—whether struck, plucked, scraped, or rubbed—and without the aid of strings or membranes. Examples of iron idiophones include bells, rasps, and rattles used to set the steps of dance; and “thumb pianos” (kankobele) with different-sized keys that are plucked to play tone poems.

The sounds of iron are sometimes equated with voices from ancestral realms. Instruments are kept in the treasuries of chiefs; held in the hands of ritual experts such as diviners; and used at occasions marking social transitions such as initiation, marriage, and funerals. Such iron instruments contribute to more than just a night’s entertainment—they often serve as vehicles linking the forge to the community, to ancestors, and to divinity itself.

The Power of Music

Music has the incredible power to connect listeners, raise spirits, and strengthen communities. While listening to the thumb piano performance by Zivanai Masango below, consider what functions music play in your life.

  • Create a short list of at least three reasons why music may be vital to a community.

Performance by Zivanai Masango, video by Robin Truesdale, Colorado, 2018,
courtesy of Zivanai 
Masango and Robin Truesdale; mbira group performance, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011, courtesy of Mr. Gift Mugwidi.