Saving the tunes: One man’s effort could preserve the Nyatiti

Charles Obong’o at his home in Alego-Usonga, Siaya County. [Isaiah Gwengi, Standard]
The road to Charles Obong’o’s house is like any other in rural Kenya. It is a red-earth footpath, off the Siaya-Rangala Road.

There is no sign at the gate identifying the home owner but residents of Sirakut village and beyond know the musician-turned carver.

The compound is a typical Luo homestead. A main house in the middle of the compound, sons’ houses lined up on the sides, goats and chickens running free and indigenous trees lining the compound.

Obong’o welcomes us at his home in North Alego location. His house is humble. Musical instruments takes most space.

Our 20km journey is to look for Nyatiti, an eight-stringed lyre that comes to mind first when one speaks of Luo traditional instruments. About one century ago, Nyatiti was so popular among both the rich and the poor.

Elicited mockery

Yet younger generations hardly know how it looks like. You won’t find it in popular Luo music.

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Obon’go, while admitting that “many people have forgotten traditional music”, says he is on a journey to reintroduce it

At the age of 14, Obong’o had started learning how to play Nyatiti. 56 years later, his love for the instrument has blossomed into carving. Today, Obong’o is a popular Nyatiti carver in Siaya County.

“I did not have my own Nyatiti and I therefore went to buy one from an old man who was carving them. I watched keenly as he was carving,” says Obong’o.

The 70-year-old recalls that his instrument elicited mockery from his peers who told him that it was not properly carved.

“I decided to make my own and with many Nyatiti players in our village, I got many customers,” he says, adding that he takes at least two weeks to complete one instrument.

“My plan is to give the younger generation an opportunity to learn playing and carving the instrument. If they make money, they can pay me. I was not taught to carve the instrument, so I feel it is my responsibility to pass the skills to the young,” he says.

His business mostly relies on tourists who buy Nyatiti to remember and appreciate the Luo traditional music. Most of the tourists visit his home to buy the instrument or send for them.

He tells the Saturday Standard that a Japanese woman, popularly known as Anyango Nyar Japan bought her first Nyatiti from him.

“I have also taught a number of women how to play the instrument and they are now playing well,” he says.

Obon’go has faced a number of challenges, ranging from lack of trees from which carvings are made to low earning due to middlemen. The tree he uses most is ebony.

He urges Kenyans to get involved in forest conservation, adding that deforestation has forced them to use endangered trees for carving.

He has appealed to the county government to consider supporting such talents, saying that the instrument is likely to be extinct if not preserved.

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Charles Obong’oMusical instrumentsMusic