The Lyre

Kisāra. Ṭambūr. Simsimiyya. Krār. Masankōp.IMG 3187-min

These just a few names to describe mankind’s oldest complete instrument—the lyre. A small harp that when strummed simultaneously produces melody, harmony and rhythm. Lyres and harps were played in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and they are depicted in temples and pharaohs’ tombs many thousands of years old. The lyre was also an important instrument in ancient Greece, the God Apollo himself taking it as his favorite.

The Beja of north and east Sudan, who call the instrument masankop, have played it since time immemorial. It was from their homeland that it found its way all over the Sudan, and today lyres and harps are found all over the East African region and the Red Sea, as well as the Arabian Peninsula in a dizzying variety of designs, traditions, and playing styles.

Its technique involves muting and unmuting the open strings. The original five-stringed lyre is the grandfather of a wealth of instruments found in East Africa, such as the Ethiopian begena, almost as tall as a person, or the Egyptian simsimiyya, which has been developed to include 25+ strings and play all the oriental scales. Wonderful harp ensembles are found in Uganda. All over the Sudan lyres are the main folk instrument and a beloved part of the culture.

Every instrument is unique; it has no standard size or dimensions, and can be made from just about anything. It is impossible, therefore, for two lyres to have the same sound. This is apparent in the multitude of different lyre tones on Otaak Band's new production, Dunia al-'Ushaq, most of which were hand built by Ali al-Abady himself.

Regardless of the materials, the lyre retains its basic shape- a body from which two arms protrude, connected by a cross piece. It is traditionally made with an animal skin wrapped around a wooden bowl or a gourd. Bicycle brake wire is now used for strings; before metal, they were made from the nerves of the gazelle’s leg. Ali al-Abady has over the years created an incredibly diverse array of lyres, including a chamber quartet of violin, viola, cello, and bass lyres.


ahmed hand