The Sudanese lyre

18 Jun — 16 Aug 2015 at the British Museum in London, United Kingdom

All images: Lyre, kissar, from northern Sudan, Mid to late 19th century © The Trustees of the British Museum
All images: Lyre, kissar, from northern Sudan, Mid to late 19th century © The Trustees of the British Museum
3 JUN 2015

This Asahi Shimbun Display features a magnificent 19th century lyre, known as a kissar, from Nubia in northern Sudan. As part of the Celebrating Africa season, this exhibition explores the historical and contemporary cultural significance of the lyre, and showcases the artistic qualities of one of the most remarkable objects in the Museum’s collection.

This Sudanese lyre was once played by a singer, minstrel and spirit healer at important occasions such as weddings, and at ceremonies associated with many cults collectively referred to as zār in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. This type of lyre would have been a leading instrument in a small band, which might have also included drums and tambourines. The band played at ceremonies aimed to heal those possessed by zār spirits.

The mesmeric rhythms of the music would lead dancing women into trance-like states when they would make contact with the zār spirits that had taken possession of their bodies. These women would then attempt to regain their equilibrium through placating the spirits, but these ceremonies were not concerned with ‘exorcism’. Zār ceremonies are one of a number of forms of communication from the wider region, which permit women to address issues and behave in ways that society would not normally allow.

In common with many African artefacts, the lyre is anthropomorphic, with eyes, nose and outstretched arms – even the name kissar means ‘skull’ and refers to the bulbous resonator of the instrument. This lyre is adorned with objects that acted as charms in zār ceremonies including beads, cowrie shells that may have come from the Maldive Islands, a metal mechanism, bells and coins (mostly Ottoman minted in Cairo but also from Great Britain and even Sumatra).

The zayran or pantheon of zār spirits are predominantly (but not exclusively) male, and the zayran provide clues to understanding the diversity of objects adorning the instrument. The objects may have been deliberately placed on the object by the musician to entice the variety of spirits attracted by the sounds of his lyre. In the 19th century, Zār spirits were based on a range of different identities in Sudan from the period including European military and colonial officials, engineers and Catholic priests, Ethiopian Christian men, Egyptian, Yemeni and Turkish traders and officials, as well as Sudanese ‘Arabs’ and men from the southern Nilotic regions of the country such as the Azande. The diverse zayran reflects the central position of Sudan, linking northern Africa and the Mediterranean with lands to the south, and connecting the Middle East and western Africa with the Indian Ocean. The region was a hub for long distance trading and pilgrimage networks.

Although illegal in Sudan today, zār ceremonies continue to be practiced across the region. Lyres of this form, although smaller and not as elaborately decorated, can be found across the Nile Delta. Contemporary bands use electric and amplified lyres to reinvent the traditional sounds, and their music has successfully reached an international audience.