What's a Kinubi?

WHAT’S A KINUBI?   Say, “kee noo’ bee”

    A ____ by any other name would _____ as sweet.

    You might also encounter it as an adungu or an adeudeu, an enanga, a kundi or possibly by many other names. On a Continent as big as Africa (the World’s second largest) with an estimated 2,000 languages spoken (about a third of the World’s languages) it stands to reason that you might find some variations…

Kinubi (Lark's drawing)

    So what is it?

    Well, to improvise on Shakespeare, “A harp by any other name would sound as sweet.” Think of the kinubi as the ultimate in sweetness, a sound so heavenly as to pluck your very heart strings.


    When Western people see my little kinubi they’re usually taken aback by its primitive appearance. It certainly doesn’t look much like a Celtic harp! …with it’s hand hewn pegs stuck through coal-burnt holes in the neck. But what really gets them is the hide covering the sound box. “A hairy harp!” they cry.

    Well, “hairy” rhymes with “fairy” and that’s about what the sound is. It’s a fairy harp. And maybe that’s not so far off.


    When you reach way back in time and—for all we know, this still happens every day in some corner of the Ituri Forest—when an animal is shot with an arrow, the sound of it leaving the taut string, is the literal sound of magic. It’s the sound of life in transition…the sound of death and transformation and life renewed.


    Representations of the Arched harp or Bow harp, as we say in English, trace at least as far back as 3,000 BC. In it’s ancient lore it has been associated with the Hunter-Priest who communes with the spirit of an animal, preying/praying for it’s body to be given willingly to feed the human in exchange for a ritualized, ongoing, committed relationship

that involves deepest respect and gratitude for the gift of its life. I believe every known human ancestral group has had such a relationship with at least one animal. This animal, has come to be known as, the “Master Animal” for a given group of people. (For a cogent discussion on the Master Animal, I refer you to, The Hero with an African Face, a book by Clyde W. Ford.)

Kinubi's    While you may be a sophisticated, city-born, supermarket shopper when it comes to food, believe me, some of your ancestors had this exact relationship with an animal just as important to them—or you wouldn’t be here today!

    And this, in essence, is the difference between a true hunter and a murderer, is it not? The truly sophisticated hunter has reverence for life.

    And since nothing, in essence, has changed since ancient times, the truly sophisticated shopper today, hunts with the good of the environment in mind rather than merely for trophies. (For a great read on sustainable hunting, the Tom Brown book series beginning with, The Tracker, is most enlightening.) 

         Kinubis from DR Congo



    The kinubi usually has ten strings or as few as four or five, occasionally as many as twelve. Tuning varies from region to region. We’ve encountered pentatonic (five-tone) scales and also Mixolydian.

    The ultimate singer’s instrument, it’s most often played as a lap harp—but in reverse of the Celtic harp—with bass strings closest to you and the treble farthest away. There’s also a bass version, sometimes played by a child as they can easily perch on the side of the larger sound box.

    Back here in North America I really had to look to find replacement strings for my kinubi. I finally settled on silk beading cord. That seemed to best mimic the sound of the original natural fiber strings. Fishing line works ok too but makes it sound more like a banjo. Linen bow string would probably work nicely too if I could find it.

Lark with Kinubi

             Lark with Kinubi


    I first encountered the Kinubi in the area where I was born in Africa. You won’t likely find the name “Oicha,” on a map of the DR Congo, but just west of the Ugandan border you can find, “Beni,” not far from the Semliki River in the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon—the Ruwenzori’s—about one degree north of the Equator. That’s close enough.

    But it seems the kinubi may have travelled inland from the coast as “Nubi” is the name of a coastal Sudanese tribe who are well known for playing this instrument. It’s also played in many parts of Uganda. The Swahili word, “Kinubi” can also literally mean, “the language of the Wanubi”/Nubi people (not to be confused with Nubians).

    Pretty sweet language!

    Give a listen here as Kris and I play kinubi duets on. *Congo River.
Or listen to the Wambuti, the Forest People, playing and singing what we have titled *Lolwa Wambuti, with the kinubi.

    A percentage of sales of the CD, Salimu! Heshimu! support the Ipulu Forest  Preserve in the DR Congo.

  * on Salimu! Heshimu! CD
** on Mystic Quest CD


KUIMBA in CONCERT: SUNDAY, APRIL 28, 2013, 2:30pm at Delta Community Music School, Ladner, BC



Rachel Schneiderman
March 31, 2016 @08:30 am
That is so beautiful, Lark, thank you!

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