This one-stringed fiddle comes from the Mandé region of West Africa, which refers to the geographical shadow of the Mandé empire (1235-1469 A.D.), including present-day Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and the Gambia. Fiddling culture among people in the Mandé region derives from the nyanyeru (also nyaanyooru, nyanyaru, nyanyur, and nhènhèru), an instrument with a particularly distinctive relationship with the Fulbe people and their identity. As ethnomusicologist Jacqueline DjeDje describes, “[t]he Fulbe in Senegambia use many instruments, but as scholars and performers agree, fiddling is what signifies and distinguishes the Fulbe from other performances [sic] cultures in the region” (2008: 65).
This particular nyanyeru is composed of a section of a small gourd pierced by a straight neck, on top of which is a metal ferrule. There is a square soundhole carved into the resonator as opposed to the soundboard, which is a morphological element distinct to the Fulbe fiddle in comparison to other sub-Saharan African fiddles, such as those in the Central Sudan and Voltaic areas. The gourd of the nyanyeru is covered with a lizard skin that is secured with small wooden pegs. Several strands of horse-hair, forming a single string, are attached high on the neck with what appears to be a ring made of hide. At the base, the horse-hair is attached to a loop that is slipped over the neck where it projects through the gourd. Two pieces of wood placed on top of the hide membrane support the horse-hair string. The instrument’s accompanying bow is a simple, round stick to which horse hair has been attached using white cord on either end.
One marked characteristic of Fulbe culture is cattle-herding, rendering the Fulbe people the traditional providers of cattle in the wider Mandé region. Traditionally a nomadic group, there are many Fulbe centers across the region. Significant among these is Takrur, an eleventh-century Sudanic state in the Senegal River valley, a section of the region along the boundary between present-day Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania. Takrur emerged during the decline of the Wagadu empire, taking over much of its Western territories and its base for trans-Saharan trade. Takrur waned and was eventually overcome by the Mandé empire in the thirteenth century. When the Mandé empire declined in the fifteenth century, the Jolof empire took over much of Takrur’s previous territory, save Futa Toro, established by Kooly Tengela Ba in the sixteenth century.
Another important Fulbe dwelling is Futa Jalon, “a place of high rocky escarpments, vast grassy plateaux, plunging waterfalls, and dense forests,” as described by art historian Frederick Lamp, in present-day central Guinea that is a common origin of several Mandé ethnic groups, even though it was ruled by Jalonke kings of Mandé origin after the fall of the Mandé empire (1996: 19). Since the twelfth century, and perhaps even a little earlier, there have also been Fulbe populations in Fulado, in the present-day Senegambian region of eastern Gambia and upper Casamance. Finally, the Fulbe have also settled in Massina, located on the inland delta of the Niger River, since the fourteenth century. Whatever relative dominance the Fulbe and/or Tukulor have cultivated in these regions over time has been established, in part, through five jihads: from Futa Jalon around 1700, Futa Toro in the late eighteenth century, Sokoto (present-day Northern Nigeria) twice in the early nineteenth century, and Futa Jalon again in 1852, the latter of which was led by Tukulor leader al Hadj Omar Tall. In 1867, Fulbe chief Alpha Molo overcame Kabu, the Mandinka empire in the southern Senegambian region, establishing the Fuladu kingdom, which is considered the last empire to be established in the region before the rise of European colonialism (Djedje 2008: 51).
According to linguist D.W. Arnott, “most professional musicians associated with the FulBe seem to be descendants of non-FulBe who have in many areas lived for centuries in symbiosis with them” (Arnott 2001). These musicians are divided into three groups: maabu’be (sing. maabo), who also practice weaving; wammbaa’be (sing. bammbaa’do) and awlu’be (sing. gawlo). The wammbaa’be have been associated with the Fulbe for the longest, while the others, Arnott writes, are of Soninke, Mandinka or Wolof origin. One-stringed bowed lutes or fiddles are typically played by the third category of musicians, awlu’be (sing. gawlo), although some wannbaa’be also play it (Arnott 2001).
Etymologically, nyanyeru, like other words for fiddle in the region (for example, riti in Wolof and susaa in Mandinka) refer to the scratching or rubbing of two objects together (DjeDje 2008: 65). The nyanyero is typically played with the base lodged into the instrumentalist’s side, close to the armpit, perpendicular to the instrumentalist’s body, with the front of the instrument faced inwards. Whatever side the instrument is pressed into, that arm wraps around the back of the instrument such that the hand, which balances the instrument’s neck on the area between the thumb and the index, can press the instrument’s string against its neck to produce different pitches. The other hand grips the bow in a fist, rubbing it against the string.
Tukulor fiddler Majaw Bai believes that both fiddles and plucked lutes were introduced to the continent by cattle herders (Djedje 2008: 66). The Tukulor, who are closely related to the Fulbe, were among the first people in the region to convert to Islam, and so it may be speculated that they adopted some of the melodic instruments emanating from the cultures–specifically Arab cultures in North Africa and the middle East–that imparted them with Islam in the eleventh or twelfth centuries (ibid).
Fulbe oral traditions recount that Musa Molo–Alpha Molo’s son and successor, the last king of the Fuladu kingdom, who collaborated with colonial powers in order to stay in power–had a nyanyeru player named Yorro Buka, known as the “first fiddler,” perform for him. Buka would follow Molo into battle, singing his praises and genealogical songs. Nyanyeru songs written in Molo’s honor include “Balla,” “Sorronna,” and “Sodahnam Padeh Jelleh.” Several Fulbe nyanyeru players in the Gambia trace their heritage to Yorro Buka, although Buka was likely the first court fiddler, rather than the first fiddler among the Fulbe.
Prior to the 1970s, typical nyanyeru ensembles included three fiddlers and/or more singers. The tama–talking drum–was likely added to nyanyeru ensembles during the 1960s and 70s in order to attract bigger audiences. At the same time, nyanyeru players also began to sing as well. Percussion instruments, such as the calabash (horde in Fulbe), sistrum (lala in Fulbe; see, for example, accession # 1986.467.14), jembe (see, for example, accession # 1986.467.1), and other membraphones, have since been added. Most recently, some have also incorporated the kora and Western instruments into nyanyeru ensembles (DjeDje 2008: 73). Magic–specifically acrobatics and fire-eating–have also always been an integral part of nyanyeru performance.
Most Fulbe nyanyeru compositions, at least in the Senegambia, are based on anhemitonic pentatonic scales extending to more than two octaves. These compositions typically consist of three parts: a short opening, typically featuring the melody or theme, sometimes repeated and varied many times; a long middle, typically featuring improvisation, variations on the melody or theme and call and response; and a closing, typically longer than the opening, in which the lead fiddler continues to improvise as he moves into another song in the performance. Call and response typically occurs between the lead fiddle and either the vocalist(s) and/or a secondary fiddle, although it may also occur between the vocal leader and secondary fiddle and/or the vocal leader and chorus.
The nyanyero has become so evocative of Fulbe identity that, at the time DjeDje was studying the instrument in the Gambia, “[f]iddle music is used to announce the beginning and end of Fulbe news on the radio, while the kora is heard when Mandinka news is broadcast” (ibid: 67). The close relationship between Fulbe identity and the nyanyeru was further confirmed by musician Tamba Kandeh, who told DjeDje that “[t]he fiddle plays an important role in Fula culture because it is a symbol for Fula. The fiddle was one of the first instruments that the Fulas came with. It’s like Fula music has no meaning if the fiddle is absent” (quoted in DjeDje 2003: 62). (Althea SullyCole, 2022)
Arnott, D. W. 2001. “FulBe Music.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol 9, 2nd ed., edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan: 23-25.
DjeDje, Jacqueline. 2008. “An Affirmation of Identity: Fulbe Fiddling in Senegambia” In Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 43-102.
Lamp, Frederick. 1996. Art of the Baga. New York: Museum of African Art.