Music blog

19 April 2013

Investigating Zulu instruments - the strange tale of the isicelekeshe

Identifying a musical instrument just from a recording can be quite problematic. A recently heard recording, soon to be available online, was one such example. The recording was made by South African composer, Kevin Volans, at a Zulu wedding on the 26th June, 1977, where a male vocalist was accompanied by some kind of bowed stringed instrument. Was it a bowed musical bow? The sound was reminiscent of some other Nguni musical bows we have in the collections but we'd not come across a Zulu instrument with this quite eerie - almost metallic - timbre and, besides, the pitch could be varied more than would be expected of a musical bow:


Time to contact a fellow ethnomusicologist and expert in Zulu musical bows, Astrid Treffry-Goatley, who worked on our David Rycroft collection of South African music recordings. Astrid told us that the  instrument is probably a type of half tube zither, the Zulu name for which is the isicelekeshe. She checked this with a Zulu musical bow player based in Inkamana Abbey in Vryheid, Brother Clement Sithole, who confirmed the name. This instrument comprises a half tube of bamboo with a crushed paraffin can attached at one end. The paraffin can acts as a resonator (hence the eerie metallic sound). The string and bow are often both of oxtail hair and the pitch is altered by pressing the backs of the fingers against the string.

The name of this instrument varies from region to region - another name for it is the segaba. You can see it being played here:


The sound of this clip and our recording are a match - and we have an example of this instrument online already, because yet another word for segaba or isicelekeshe is segankuru. You can hear John Brearley's recording of the segankuru on our sounds website.

Detective work of this kind is a lot of fun, providing great opportunities for engaging with scholars and musicians all over the world.


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