Day 4 – Tuesday 4th July 2017

On the fourth day, we had several venues and individuals to meet and time we could spend in each interview was therefore limited. We started our day in Unyolo village, Alego constituency (Siaya County) at the homestead of William Ogutu Omondi. Born in 1936, this elder amazed us not only with his excellent nyatiti playing, but also with his sharp memory and stories of fellow players and of makers from the olden days. He started playing in 1950, yet although his father Omondi Undugu also used to play, he learned by observation from another player – Ogola Sewe from the same location. He could remember and retrace all the nyatitis he had previously owned, mentioning how he bought the first one at 8 Kenyan shillings in 1951 from a certain Undego Koile. He stated that he never owns more than one instrument and usually gives out the old one to a school teacher who uses it in class. He is equally proud of the fact his son is learning how to play, while he confirms no formal teaching actually happens. Traditionally the only way to learn the nyatiti is by observing and trying out. On the topic of gender taboo, Ogutu commented he does not recall ever seeing a female nyatiti player, yet does not think there exists an actual explicit restriction.

We were also content to hear William Ogutu’s stories of nyatiti competitions which used to happen, occasions they used to play in (mostly funerals) and a recently revived association of nyatiti players. According to him, he was one of the first players to do a studio session in 1954 in Kampala. After he listed over 30 nyatiti players from different locations in Luo land, he also helped us date the appearance of the famous “Koblong” tune to approximately 1954. Finally, he showed us his instrument tuning technique, which seemed well elaborated and in accordance to what we’ve heard from other traditional players.

After the excellent interview with Ogutu, we proceeded to Boro location of the same constituency, in order to meet Alex Ogwe, an 85 year old nyatiti maker. This was unfortunately a rather difficult interview to conduct because of the interviewee’s reservations, as well as for reasons of bad weather that chased us away before we could complete it. However, we did manage to find out several interesting information, notably, on his beginnings as a player and on the instrument manufacturing itself. Alex Ogwe confirmed our two generation theory and said he only started playing once his father was gone. He also gave us an idea of the current purchase conditions (order completed in approx. 2 weeks, price of 6000 Kenyan shillings per nyatiti), while mentioning that most of the nyatitis he makes go to clients from outside the area (as far as USA). Ogwe considers that since the materials are becoming more and more costly, so does the instrument and consequently fewer people are purchasing it.

When describing his manufacture process, Ogwe enumerated several types of trees for the resonator (ondero, ng’owo, kuogo, murembe) and for the arms (ogwero, milinginda, apindi, mago), while confirmed siyala is the best type for the head. His method deferred from the previously interviewed nyatiti makers essentially in two points:

  1. He never sells an uncomplete nyatiti (includes painting ad strings);
  2. All of the instrument’s components are fixed and left to dry together (resonators, skin, arms and head).

Finally, he makes a clear difference between clients who are traditional and/or locally famous players, for whom he does a sacrifice upon completion of job, and outsiders, commercial clients for whom he does no such thing.

Finally, we closed our day with an indoors interview at Namsagali hotel in Siaya. There we talked to Thadayo Owit Mutumura (born 1940), an excellent nyatiti player. He told us about the history of nyatiti in his family and its presence in all occasions (both weddings and burials), as well as about organised competitions he used to take part in. He remembered the olden days and the hostility among competing players fondly and said that every player had his own hit composition. When we asked him about “Koblong”, he dated it as late as 1980s and even claimed the tune was borrowed from his repertoire. His current instrument was made by a certain Apondi; yet he had to take it to Obong’o Omenda, the maker we interviewed on the first day in the region, for repairs, since he considers him the best.

According to Owit, there are no traditional taboos as to who can play the nyatiti, neither in generational nor in gender terms. He mentioned teaching two ladies how to play approximately 15 years ago. His teaching method is as follows: he plays as the student observes, then he’s hands the instrument to him/her to try out. He also commented on the change in community perception of nyatiti players. Previously, it used to be a symbol of respect and prestige, since “nyatiti was something good”. Nowadays he regrets it is no longer the case. We closed the interview with his tuning techniques and confirmed previously mentioned names and associations of strings.

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