As a rule, the obokano played by the Kisii tribe in Kenya is more than a meter high and a meter wide. Consequently the obokano, along with the bagana played by the Amharas in Ethiopia, can be considered one of the largest lyres still in use today. Long ago large lyres like these were all the rage - in for example the city of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) 5000 years ago -, but today they are only found in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The obokano owes its distinctive sound partly to the special bridge, which supports eight reed strings. The positioning of the reeds is what gives the obokano the typical 'buzzy' sound musicians are so fond of.
The soundbox is traditionally a hollowed out stump of the omotembetree, but metal bowls are increasingly used because they weigh less and are easier to find. A cowhide, which has first been wet and then partly or entirely shaved, is stretched over the soundbox. Two wooden stays or 'arms' cut through the skin. The hide is attached with little straps to the back of the instrument and allowed to dry. The whole thing is held together by the hide which contracts when dry. Finally the wooden crosspiece, the nylon strings and the bridge (made from reeds and held in position with beeswax) are fitted and the instrument is ready for use.
Traditionally men played the obokano. Women were not allowed to touch the instrument in the belief that doing so would make them infertile. The obokano stood for power and pleasure. It was brought out at weddings and other ceremonies, circumcisions or simply for entertainment, for example after the harvest. Often singing accompanied by the obokano led to dancing. Songs glorifying the dead or rain songs in times of drought were often accompanied by the obokano too. Even though rain songs and wedding songs have fallen into disuse since the Christianization of the Kisii area, they live on in the memory.
The sound is produced by plucking the strings of the obokano with the fingers. After all, it is a lyre! The musician balances one end of the instrument on his left knee and holds the other end under his armpit. The left hand plucks the top four strings, the right hand the bottom four.
Sometimes the player starts dancing. He puts his head through one of the openings between the stays and the strings and carries the instrument round his neck. It is generally assumed that musical talent is hereditary: an ancestor might pass down the ability to play the obokano to a child.
Today the obokano is generally seen in an educational context: for example, to urge people to protect themselves against AIDS infection or to encourage boys to study hard. Some musicians are even conscripted by politicians to draw people to election meetings. Society may have changed greatly in a short space of time, but the obokano is still thriving!