Rhythmic sounds of the forge reverberate beyond the workplace when hot iron is struck by hammers and bellows are pumped with air. This measured resonance translates as “music” and is important to iron production from beginning to end, with prayers and songs to the forge often serving as preludes to blacksmiths’ tasks.Music is also produced using forged iron instruments that can be categorized as idiophones. These create sound through the vibrating core of their principal material—whether struck, plucked, scraped, or rubbed—and without the aid of strings or membranes. Examples of iron idiophones include bells, rasps, and rattles used to set the steps of dance; thumb pianos with different-sized keys are plucked to play tone poems.
The sounds of iron, by virtue of the spiritual and supernatural potencies attributed to the metal itself, are sometimes equated with voices from ancestral realms. Instruments are kept in the treasuries of chiefs; held in the hands of ritual experts such as diviners; and used at occasions marking social transitions such as initiation, marriage, and funerals. Such sonorous iron instruments contribute to more than just an evening’s entertainment—they often serve as vehicles linking the forge to the community, ancestors, and divinity itself.
Tonal tales. Lamellophones are popularly known as “thumb pianos.” The instrument incorporates between a few and more than two dozen iron tines, or keys, set on anterior and posterior bridges, held by a pressure bar, and attached to a wooden soundboard. The board is usually held in both hands so that the keys may be depressed with the thumbs; a key’s thickness and length determine the pitch of the note it produces.
African thumb pianos are used by storytellers to set the pace on narration, emphasize dramatic moments and add to the pleasures of listening. The lamellophones in the exhibition include:
- A Tabwa thumb piano was once covered with a thick spider web so that it buzzed when played on top of a gourd, like a kazoo.
- Chokwe thumb piano with soundboard that that includes iron beads to enhance its sound and is decorated with motifs related to Chokwe culture. Another depicts a Portuguese trader (pombeiro in Portuguese) who brought news as well as goods across a region divided among colonial powers: Portuguese Angola, British Northern Rhodesia, and the Belgian Congo (today Angola, Zambia, and the DRC).