The woodwind instruments of the Kenyan sengenya dance : chivoti (transverse flutes), nzumari (oboe), bung’o (bass oboe)


In November 2018, a team of four people of the MIM left for Nairobi, Kenya, to help digitizing the collection of musical instruments of the Music and Dance Department, headed by dr. Isaiah Oyugi, at the Kenyatta University, Ruiru, Nairobi. In order to keep the traditional music and dances of Kenya alive, a team of four makers-musicians train the students to build and play Kenyan musical instruments. This program was launched in 1985, since the foundation of the Kenyatta University.

During the digitization campaign all the instruments were photographed, information about the instruments was furnished by the music department's teachers and students, and videos were made of musicians playing the instruments in the campus of the Kenyatta university. The campaign is part of the PRIMA project, which aims at helping to preserve and make accessible musical instruments collections located in Africa, through online publication on and Apart from Kenyatta University, the Musée de la musique of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the Musée panafricain de la musique in Brazzaville, Congo, and the Musée des Arts et Métiers Traditionnels de Libreville, Gabon, are partners of this network project. The instruments of their collections can be seen on the abovementioned sites.

The instruments on display here were acquired during this digitization campaign. Some of them (the bung'o 2018.0150.008 and the set of six chivoti flutes 2018.0150.011.001 - 006) were made especially for the MIM.









The chivoti is a transverse flute in bamboo of the Mijikenda people from the Coastal region. The instrument has six finger holes, the nod of the bamboo stem stops the end of the flute. Musicians playing the chivoti make their own instruments and like to decorate them with geometrical figures, burned into the bamboo tube. Raymond McKenzie, the maker of most of these chivotis, teaches at the Music and Dance department of the Kenyatta University. 

The chivoti is mainly used to introduce and accompany the singing during the popular dance, now called the sengenya dance, a ceremonial dance performed mainly during funerals, to honor the ancestors. Other occasions are marriages and the birth of a child. Typical of the dance is the participation of the audience invited by the singers (call and response). Before colonization dances did not have a particular name. As Valentine Kihuha, a doctoral student of the Music and Dance department, relates: "We are not sure where the name comes from; before we did not have names for the dances, we gave names because Europeans asked how the dances were named". Sengenya in the local language literally means "gossip".

Another instrument used during the sengenya dance is the nzumari. This oboe is an adaptation of the Arab zurna and zamr, introduced when the Arabs came to trade on the Coastal regions of Kenya.  It is used as a solo instrument, during the interludes of the sengenya, in between the verses of the songs.

The nzumari player uses the circular breathing method, which means that the player blows the reeds while inhaling through the nose (to be recognized by the blown up cheeks of the player, see Fig. 7). The form of the mouthpiece is adapted to this playing technique: it provides a small supporting shelf for the lips. The result is an uninterrupted, continuous sound. The nzumari is played only by men.

The bung'o is the large version of the nzumari, is up to 1m50 and made of three separate parts, the mouth piece with the reed, the cylindrical bamboo playing tube with three finger holes, and the conical bell in wood. The whole is decorated with  geometrical burned decorations. Like the nzumari, the bung'o player (always a man) uses the circular breathing playing technique.

The bung'o sounds during the short intervals in the singing of the Sengenya, signaling the movement of the dances and alternates with the singers in the call and response style, in unison with the audience. The bung'o produces a very deep continuous sound, as can be heard in the video.

Text: Saskia Willaert

Musical instruments of the Music & Dance Department, Kenyatta University, Ruiru
Kenyatta University, Ruiru, Nairobi, founded in 1985
Denis Murage Wambui playing Chivoti, Ruiru, Nairobi, November 2018
Raymond Mtawali McKenzie, teacher, builder and player of traditional Kenyan inst
Raymond McKenzie playing the nzumari, November 2018
Raymond Mtwali McKenzie playing the bung'o, November 2018
Recording during the PRIMA campaign, November 2018
Encoding metadata on the instruments of the Music & Dance Dept., Kenyatta Univ.
Photographing the instruments of the Music and Dance Department, Kenyatta Univ.
Ruiru, suburb of Nairobi
Two bung’o and a nzumari, Raymond McKenzie, inv. 2018.0150.008-10
Set of chivoti, Raymond Mtawali and Iha Pwicha McKenzie, inv. 2018.0135.004
External Video
See video