The Adungu had fewer strings that migrating tribes customised by adding more, assembling it in different sizes and blending it with various musical instruments to produce different melodies, writes Joseph Batte.
You will find this musical instrument, vaguely resembling the lyre, played in all parts of Uganda. Almost every ethnic group has compositions based on the Adungu and any school worth its name must have it in their music store. Cultural troupes prefer it because it is easy to marry with other instruments to produce various soothing rhythms.
In a culturally diverse society, the Adungu, also known as ekidongo or ennenga, has transcended ethnic boundaries to become a national instrument. Its origins have always been shrouded in mystery. However, it is believed that it originated from Egypt in 3000 B.C. That is why it’s not surprising that today’s Adungu is strikingly similar to the surviving ancient Egyptian arched harp preserved in the British Museum.
The Adungu is reported to have been brought into Uganda by the Nilotic tribes as they migrated southwards following the Nile.
“It is even mentioned in the Bible. King David was one of the proficient Adungu players. But the version played today was given to us by Nyipir (also known as Gipir),” says Prof. Stephen Gwotcho, an Alur and lecturer in the department of Industrial Arts at Makerere University.
It is said Gipir (Legendary leader of the Luo Arur – People found in West nile) used the Adungu to accompany ancient folk songs, which energized his people as they walked. However, by the time he reached Pubungu in West Nile, his company was short of young women. So, he taught his male subjects to play courting melodies on the Adungu and this attracted young women, driving them wild during twin-naming ceremonies. Minstrels would place the Adungu over a shallow hole in the ground. And while one was manipulating the strings, another was drumming the sound box with a club. Consequently, two distinct sounds are produced; one melodic, the other rhythmic.
Gwotcho says the Adungu became so important that every homestead had one, thus contributing to the musicianship of the Alur people. The Bagungu then imported it into neighbouring Bunyoro. And once here, Milton Wabyona of the Uganda Heritage Roots says in a published article that it put traditional female virtues at risk, owing to the seductive tunes of the bow harp. Thus, King Kamurasi confirmed the harp to the royal clans.
However, most Bagungu women still retained an a’dingili (very tiny Adungu) in their homes. It provided comfort, in the way one plucked at its strings, perhaps after a domestic quarrel. Wandering singers carried the bow harp into Buganda where white missionaries were awed by this local instrument that could be tuned to sound like a guitar or piano.
“The Adungu was suitable for church music, because it could drive people outwards into rapture and inward into confession,” Steven Kasamba, an ethnomusicologist at Makerere University is quoted to have said in referring to the instrument.
Missionaries thus adopted and carried the Adungu from Buganda into Busoga, Bugisu and Teso. They played it on a pentatonic scale to accompany Catholic hymns. The Iteso blended the diatonic Adungu with the thumb piano, the flute and shakers to produce akembe.
Adungu come in varying dimensions, ranging from seven to ten strings or more. Its sound box is like a board, made out of a carved tree to look like a boat covered with a cow hide for the bass and goats’ skin for the smaller ones. According to Sam Okello, a musician and actor (formerly with Ndere Troupe), the Adungu comes in a set of up to seven versions, from the smallest to biggest. The smallest is like the soprano, followed by one which serves as alto –that is supposed to play parallel melody to the soprano. The third one is supposed to play the harmony. Then of course, you have the base and others, including the rhythm.
According to Okello, originally, the Adungu had fewer strings that migrating tribes customised by adding more, assembling it in different sizes and blending it with various musical instruments to produce different melodies. These strings were originally made from a cowhide, then sisal. Today they are made from nylon strings.
Gwotcho adds that the Adungu was played as a solo instrument, usually by skilled elderly musicians. However, because in Africa the art of making musical instruments is very often a collective effort, Adungu evolved from being a solo instrument to a collection of musicians playing different Adungus, which can be likened to a modern band today.
In contemporary Africa, the Adungu is made with tuning pegs attached to the strings. There are movable rings on the neck of the instrument for each string. They are made so that the string can vibrate against the ring to create a sound. The rings are generally made of banana fibre with lizard skin wrapped on top. The neck is then attached to a wooden box that serves as a resonator.
As noted earlier, the Adungu is one of the most evolving musical instruments. Today the young generation have tried to give the Adungu a modern twist by including modern texts to the music and amplifying the instrument, creating an electric version of it, which is not bad in itself, but nothing beats the beauty of the older styles.
Adungu is one of the few African instruments that can be tuned to western music’s pentatonic scale and be blended with any popular music style.
“I think the instrument has a good future,” Okello told the BBC’s ArtBeat not long ago.“First, it produces good melodies. It is adaptable to both the pentatonic scale, which is a common scale to all African music, but also it has the capacity to be adjusted to the diatonic scale, which is very popular among modern contemporary music. It marries the traditional and modern.”