This donsó ngoni (also burunuba), or hunter’s harp, comes from the music-making traditions of the Wasulu, which refers to both the people, music and geolinguistic area of southern Mali, eastern Guinea, and northwestern Cote D’Ivoire (Durán 1995: 104). The Wasulu’s distinctive identity is the result of migrations of Fulbe people into the region, which has been otherwise populated by Malinke, Bamana and Senufo people, since the fifteenth century (Charry 2000: 18-19). The region is well-known for its association with the cultural, moral and religious world of hunters.
The donsó ngoni exhibits five structural components common to West African harps in general: first, its neck is fitted with tuning rings; second, it has a gourd as a resonator, which in Wasulunka, the language spoken by Wasulu people, is referred to as fle; third, it has a sound table made from an animal skin, referred to in Wasulunka as bagolo; fourth, it has an upright string holder or bridge, which translates to so (literally “horse”) in Wasulunka; and finally, and perhaps most unique to the Mandé region, it is a spike harp, which means that the neck of the instrument extends all the way through the resonator and protrudes from the bottom end. Both spike harps and harps with upright string holders or bridges are considered indigenous to West Africa (ibid: 77).
The bagolo of this particular donsó ngoni, which is from the nineteenth century, is likely made from the hide of an antelope, although goatskin is more commonly used on contemporary instruments. The hide is attached to the fle with wooden pegs. There are four pieces of wood that hold up the hide sound table: two parallel and two perpendicular to the instrument’s neck on either side of the so. The two parallel wooden supports also form the instruments’ two handles, which, in Wasulunke, are referred to as bolomenelan. They are tied to the neck of the instrument, a feature unique to the donsó ngoni. The instrument has six sinew strings strung through notches on the so. A square soundhole is cut into the back of the gourd resonator.
This instrument also has a segesege, a kind of rattle made from a thin piece of metal adorned with metal rings. This kind of rattle is thought to have originated on the jembe, a large goblet drum found throughout the region (for examples in the Met’s collection, see accession ## 1986.467.1 and 2004.25), wherein it is inserted into the hide strings holding the tension of a jembe’s drum head. In the case of this donsó ngoni, the segesege is similarly inserted into a thin slat at the top of the instrument’s neck. The segesege both amplifies and adds a percussive element to the instrument, producing a distinct buzzy timbre.
Throughout the wider West African region, and especially Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and the Gambia, donsó, or hunter, musicians act as intermediaries between donsó and supernatural forces in the forest. For example, praise of both the donsó and his kill through donsó musicians’ song neutralizes dangerous forces released in death. The distinctive timbre of the donsó ngoni, ethnomusicologist Lucy Durán writes, evokes “the ‘mystique’ of hunting (donsoya) and its values–bravery, skill, cunning and access to that esoteric power that master hunters possess” (1995: 115; emphasis added).
Unlike other West African hunter’s harps, the donsó ngoni is tuned to a pentatonic, as opposed to heptatonic, scale. It is played predominantly with the left hand, whose pinky, ring, and middle fingers wrap around the bolomelan, while the index and thumbs pluck the strings. The right hand is used to support the neck about half-way up the instrument such that only the thumb of that hand plucks the strings. Its distinctive timbre is created, in part, with a staccato technique called ka dere that produces harmonics a 12th above the two highest-pitch strings by damping them with the knuckle of the thumbs or tip of the left first finger. The performance of a donsó ngoni piece is built around a theme called ngonisin, literally “the leg of the ngoni,” which serves as the foundation for improvisations known as teremeli, literally “musical bargaining.”
Broadly speaking, there is little social distinction within West African hunter societies, leading Malian scholar Youssouf Cissé to come to the conclusion that they predate the “rigid structure of Malinke society” and the spread of Islam (1964: 176). Hunter’s harps do not rely on the iron tools of blacksmiths, and therefore may predate the beginnings of metalworking in West Africa in the mid-first millennium B.C.E., not long after reliance on agriculture as a food source developed in the Mandé region. In the event of drought and/or famine, hunting may have been critical to survival, resulting in the elevation of hunters as heroes (Cissé 1964: 189; Bird 1972: 276 and Charry 2000: 67). It is possible, therefore, that hunter’s musicians’ practices were developed not long after reliance on agriculture became widespread, making their practices one of the oldest not only represented in the Met’s collection of West African instruments but which is also still practiced in the region today.
In recent times, the word Wasulu has become synonymous with the music-making practices of Wasulu people, which, among other things, is deeply rooted in the donsó ngoni tradition and especially its pentatonic scales (Durán 1995). Wasulu singers and musicians are frequently referred to as kònò (pl. konow), which means bird and is also used to describe non-hereditary singers. This is significant because, as Durán explains, “[t]he bird is a symbol of freedom, wisdom and beauty of voice in Mande. The konow are musicians by choice and natural ability, with a ‘bird's eye’ view of society, allowing them to comment on social issues” (1995: 102). (Althea SullyCole, 2022)
Bird, Charles S. 1972. “Heroic Songs of the Mande Hunters.” In African Folklore, edited by Richard Dorson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 275-93.
Cissé, Youssouf. 1964. “Notes sur les sociétés de chasseurs malinké.” Journal des Africanistes 34, no. 2: 175-226.
Charry, Eric. 2000. Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Durán, Lucy. 1995. “Birds of Wasulu: Freedom of expression and expressions of freedom in the popular music of Southern Mali.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 4, no. 1: 101-34.