This little stringed instrument from Gabon, located on the Atlantic coast above the Congo, joined the MIM's collection one hundred and fourty years ago.

The wambee (also called ombi or ngwomi) is a typical Central African instrument, with a construction midway between a lute and a harp. The strings, made of fine vegetable fibres, do not run over a neck like the lute or the guitar, but are each attached to a separate bow. The strings are not shortened to change the pitch but each produce a single note like the harp ('open stringed'). In contrast to the harp, the strings run parallel to the soundboard. The bows of the wambee slide into small openings in the back of the wooden sound box. They are further held together by woven fibre threads (Fig. 1). The strings can be tuned by shifting small fibre rings that are tied around the string and the bow.  Wambee inv. 0154 has five bows and thus originally had five strings. Today only a few remains of the strings and rings survive. The soundboard of this wambee is a thin wooden board, skilfully knotted to the sound box with fibre threads, an ancient technique subsequently replaced by joining with wooden dowels or metal nails.

Wambee players hold the instrument in a horizontal position, with the bottom of the sound box against the belly and strum the strings with both thumbs and index fingers. A similar playing position can be seen in Fig. 2. The wambee is played by men in the evenings, for a restricted audience, as an accompaniment to stories. The accompaniment on the wambee is usually simple, more rhythmic than melodic. The expertise lies not so much in the technique of playing the instrument, as in the recital by heart of texts full of references to historical names and events. Bow lutes are still played in Central Africa. In the Republic of Congo, for example, the ngomfi is used to accompany dances and songs.

Wambee inv. 0154 is part of one of the MIM's two earliest collections. The instrument comes from the old collection of the Belgian musicographer and then director of the Brussels Conservatoire royal de musique, François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871). After his death, the collection was sold by his sons Edouard and Adolphe to the Belgian State, who placed it in the Conservatoire, pending the opening of the new Musée instrumental (1877).

François-Joseph Fétis described his entire collection of non-European musical instruments in the first two volumes of his Histoire de la musique, released in 1869, an ambitious project that - unusually for that time - also included music from outside Europe. In the 1860s and 1870s, African instruments were barely known in Europe. The first music from the African continent could only be heard at the World Exhibitions, which celebrated the latest developments and discoveries in the fields of industry and culture.  In 1867 five Arab musicians gave a concert in the 'Tunisian Café ' at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Gustave Chouquet, first curator of the Musée du Conservatoire national de musique in Paris, refers, in his report on the musical instruments at the subsequent World Exhibition of Paris in 1878, to the role played by Fétis in the development of the wider interest in and scientific discovery of music from 'foreign' cultures: "Il serait injuste de ne point reconnaître que F.-J. Fétis, and publiant son "Histoire générale de la musique", a donné de l'essor à cette nouvelle branch de notre littérature [ethnomusicology] ".

While Fétis may have given impetus to the development of ethnomusicology, he nevertheless had a very low opinion of non-European music, which he found in no way comparable to 'high-quality' Western music. He considered sub-Saharan African music in particular to be primitive and without any culture. Fétis' aesthetic vision is typical of the 19th century: eurocentrism and stereotyping prevented the appreciation of non-Western music.

In his short chapter on Black African music, Fétis discusses other Black African instruments (Fig. 3), but does not mention the wambee. This probably means that he only received the instrument after the appearance of the Histoire in 1869, and thus shortly before his death in 1871.

In his sons' sales list, the wambee is registered as an "instrument sans nom des plus primitifs". But Fétis himself, as a well-read music historian, must have known that such an instrument was already depicted in the Theatrum Instrumentorum by Michael Praetorius in 1619. Plate XXXI of this well-known iconographic source shows a picture of the wambee, undoubtedly from the coasts of Gabon.  Praetorius assumed that the depicted bow lute and Gabonese harp came from India and described them as "Indianische instrumenta" (Fig. 4). The illustrator clearly made these drawings based on real examples and the instruments in this record as a whole suggest that he had access to a collection of instruments, probably from a German nobleman's Wunderkammer. This record also indicates that the wambee was already being played at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

A similar bow lute was also depicted in a much more recent publication, namely the Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, published in 1861 (Fig. 5). This bestseller by Paul Beloni du Chaillu, a French-American anthropologist and correspondent of the New-York Tribune, is a record of his journey through the interior of Gabon between 1856 and 1859. Two years later a number of chapters appeared in a French translation. In his report on the Seke, a tribe of "traders, real cheats, ardent hunters, with sufficient courage and great skill in woodcraft" is an engraving entitled "wambee: the Shekiani banjo" that resembles Fétis' instrument. As previously mentioned, wambee inv. 0154 probably ended up in Fétis' collection shortly before his death, but we do not know how or from whom he obtained it. In 1880, curator Victor-Charles Mahillon put a small engraving of Fétis' African instrument in the first volume of the Catalog du Musée instrumental, under the name "wambee", with a reference to the French translation of Du Chaillu's book. It is, to date, the oldest known sub-Saharan instrument in the MIM collection (Fig. 6).


  • Archive MIM, 4R72, f. [2v]
  • DEKKMA Africamuseum, Tervuren:
  • Belloni du Chaillu, Paul, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, New York, 1861
  • Belloni du Chaillu, Paul, (1831-1903), Voyages et aventures dans l'Afrique équatoriale: mœurs et coutumes des habitants, Paris, 1863
  • Chouquet, Gustave, Rapport sur les instruments de musique et les éditions musicales. Exposition Universelle Internationale de 1878 0 Paris. Groupe ii, Classe 13, Ministère de l'agriculture et du commerce, Parijs, 1880.
  • Fétis, F[rançois]-J[oseph], Histoire générale de la musique depuis les temps les plus anciens jusqu'à nos jours, 5 vols., Paris, 1869-76Gerhard
  • Kubik, Gerhard, 'Central Africa: An Introduction', in Ruth Stone (ed., The Garland Handbook of African Music, New York, 2000, p. 272.
  • Norborg, Åke, A Handbook of Musical and Other Sound-Producing Instruments from Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, Musikmuseets skrifter, vol. 16, Stockholm, 1989
  • Praetorius, Michael, "Theatrum Instrumentorum", De Organographia, deel 2, Syntagma musicum, vol. 2, Wolfenbuttel, 1619


Fig. 1: Wambee, Seki, Gabon, before 1872. MIM inv. 0154 © Simon Egan

Fig. 2. Fig. 2. Playing position wambee. R. Visser. Congo. nr. 41. Musiciens Indogènes [n.d.] (detail)

Fig. 3. F.-J. Fétis, Histoire de la musique, 1869, i, p. 39

Fig. 4. Michael Praetorius, Theatrum Instrumentorum. Syntagma musicum, Wolfenbuttel, 1619, plate XXXI

Fig. 5. Paul Belloni du Chaillu, (1831-1903), Voyages et aventures dans l'Afrique équatoriale: mœurs et coutumes des habitants, Paris, 1863, 163

Fig. 6: "Le Wambee (n° 154)", in Victor-Charles Mahillon, Catalogue descriptif & analytique du Musée instrumental du Conservatoire royal de musique de Bruxelles, Gent, 1880, p. 193

Fig. 1. Wambee, Seki, Gabon, before 1872. MIM inv. 0154 front © Simon Egan
Fig. 1. Wambee, Seki, Gabon, before 1872. MIM inv. 0154 back © Simon Egan
Fig. 2.-Congo.-nr.-41
Fig. 2. Playing position wambee. R. Visser. Congo. nr. 41. Musiciens Indogènes
Fig. 3. F.-J. Fétis, Histoire de la musique, 1869, i, p. 39
Fig. 4. Michael Praetorius, Theatrum Insturmentorum. Syntagma musicum, 1619
Fig. 5. du Chaillu, Paris, 1861, 163
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