Friday mystery object #90 answer


I must apologise in advance for the somewhat short answer to the mystery object this week. Partly it’s because I don’t know much about musical instruments and partly because I’ve been busy pulling together a guest post for GrrlScientist over at Punctuated Equilibrium on the Guardian science blogging network (not sure when it will go live[EDIT it's live now]). Excuses aside – on with the answer!

Last Friday I gave you this object to identify:


I was impressed that everyone immediately spotted that it was a musical instrument, but I was even more impressed that so many of you identified which continent it was from (Africa) and the general type of instrument. Historically in the West this has been referred to as a ‘thumb piano’ which is a very Eurocentric interpretation. A more accurate generic name is lamellophone (or lamellaphone).

There are lots of different sorts of lamellopone from different regions in Africa, including the mbira, the sanza, the kalimba and lukembe. This particular example differs from all of these other forms in the way in which the lamellae are secured:

This particular type has tangs on the lamellae that are driven directly into the wooden resonator, rather than having a fretboard like an mbira:

Mbira by Alex WeeksThis means that the instrument is not tunable, unlike the mbira.

This unusual characteristic identifies this mystery object is an ulimba or lulimba

According to Tom (and the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments) the lulimba is made by the Makonde and Mwera people of Northern Mozambique, who create the body from a solid piece of wood with the top part tilted upwards. The lamellae are driven into the wood and, once embedded, cannot be tuned. It’s possible that these types of lamellaphone were influenced by small gamelans from Indonesia that came to the East African coast on merchant ships several centuries ago.

It’s rather fitting that this instrument may have been inspired by gamelans, since the Horniman has a new exhibition opening at the end of this week that features a full gamelan orchestra – it should be quite spectacular!

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