MASIMBA na ngombi  (the booklet)
Music for Tsogo harp

The Ngounié province and its capital Ngounie lie more than four hundred kilometers from Libreville, Gabon’s capital. Tsogo populations represent a small percentage of the country’s population. Their musicians enjoy nevertheless a certain notoriety at the national level. The Tsogo being considered as the creators of the bwete male initiation ritual, widely spread in the country and in which the Ngombi harp occupies a central role.

Tsogo country is often used to designate the constellation of villages circling the north of Mimongo. The Tsogo are the majority in these villages where Punu, Masango or Akele communities also live. This geography of the Tsogo country is the consequence of ancient migrations of populations from the north of present-day Gabon. Some Tsogo villages are a little outside this historic arch and today there is a development of Tsogo villages towards Mouila and even a migration to large urban centers like Libreville. This is the fruit of the demographic dynamism of the Tsogo populations.

At the village, the predominant economic activity is logging for regional needs. The cultivation of cassava, banana, taro and peanuts, the farming of goats or pigs is for local consumption. Tsogo territory was deemed difficult to access in the sixties. Today one can go daily by clando (shared taxi) to Mouila, to work or sell the local productions. Tsogo communities do not live in a geographical or social isolate. The dynamics of transformation of their musical culture reflects their constant connection to the globalized world.

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, Bwete's vision-based men's initiatory societies and possession-based women's therapeutics of Ombudi spread all over the country. These rites are now practiced throughout the whole country.

Gabon 3Girl prepared for the ceremony of Ombudi and her mother © A. Durieu / AfricaMuseum

The Ngombi is an eight-string arched harp tuned according to a hexatonic system of the type A-B-C-D-E-G. Ngombi accompanies vocal repertoires which occupy a central place in ritual ceremonies and whose semantics is highly symbolic. This instrument is at the same time widely used in the region and is also played outside the ceremonial setting. It can be heard during vigils, on the radio, in bars or dance halls, or on various recording media (CDs, laptops, etc.). The contemporary Tsogo harpists compose their own repertoire which they record and commercialize. These popular songs are called mayaya in Tsogo language, "tradimodern" in French. The appeal of this type of repertoire is important and raises new challenges for musicians who invest in urban concert halls or digital exchange platforms.

The pieces proposed on this CD were recorded between 2013 and 2017 in the villages of Mokabo, Bandi, Bilengui. The two harpists, Dieudonné 'Monss' Mondjo and Dydas 'Getseke' Hymbila, are nganga (master initiators) in the Bwete and Ombudi ceremonies, but also known popular musicians in their region. Their compositions are arrangements of old pieces whose lyrics they adapt to the general public. The orchestration also differs from the ritual context, notably by the addition of a percussive accompaniment, the mosumba drum (tracks 4,6,7,9) or modern drums (n °12 ) but also by the mix of the choir (n °13). The selection presented, composed and arranged by the musicians for the purpose of entertainment, raises a new and different look to the musical heritage the repertoire of the ngombi harp.

Masimba literally means "the chord of the harp", which we find in prelude and postlude of each piece.

CD tracks

  1. Gembeda means "makeup" in Tsogo. This is a song from the Ombudi societies repertoire, interpreted when their members are preparing for a ceremony. It is also an invitation to uninitiated people to stay away from the place of worship. 

  2. Mitombo mia gombudi can be translated as "the Ombudi liturgical repertoires". This piece is made of instrumental harp formulas accompanying the vocal parts, declaimed or sung during rites and ceremonies. The term mitombo refers to both the liturgical repertoire and the different rhythmic figures. The mitombo provide instrumental support for the sacred word. This piece is a compilation of the different themes adressed during the Ombudi ceremonies punctuated by a whistle in a shotgun socket, obembe.
  3. Ngwa dede is the name of a ritual dance practiced by women. It is performed by the harpist, a choir and a rhythmic accompaniment performed by two percussionists on a percussion beam, bake.  

  4. Ebando, "the origin", is a song taken from an Ombudi. therapeutic ceremony. At nightfall, while most women take their places inside the tede, the women's worship house, they prepare for the night vigil by putting on make-up and by performing various a cappella songs. Each woman at a turn comes to sing a piece of her choice.

  5. Mitombo. This mitombo is a liturgical song performed during Bwete's male ceremonial rituals. The mitombo traditionally have long instrumental parts and are, par excellence, representative of Bwete initiation vigils. The mitombo are played in the mbandja (men's house of worship), when neophytes ingest iboga, a hallucinogenic plant that will allow them to "see" the invisible world. Archive recordings, from 1960, confirm the remarkable stability of this repertoire over a period of more than half a century.

  6. Motombi is the name of the copaifera religiosa, a red bark tree, used in the healing pharmacopoeia of the ngangas (master initiators). This tree plays a fundamental role in the Bwete mythology and is considered sacred by its followers.

  7. Getogome is a Bwete dance that could be translated as "do not sweat". It is performed during the initiation of neophytes when they are "husteled" by the kombwe, the old initiates. This is to check their state of consciousness and invite the soul to leave his body envelope to achieve his astral journey. A rhythmic accompaniment is played on a mosumba drum but traditionally it does not accompany the harp in a ritual context.

  8. Mobu, "the ocean," is also a song from Bwete's repertoire ceremonies whose lyrics are highly allegorical. The different levels of interpretation of the words taught in ritual ceremonies and the belief in their meanings are the real guardians of Bwete's secret. This allows musicians to play these sacred songs in secular spheres, since "the laymen can not understand ". One can hear a rhythmic accompaniment played by the bake and the ternary pulsation marked by the soke rattle. There are also spoken parts on this piece which echoes the litanies of the povi, the depositary of the sacred word in the ceremonial setting.

  9. Masangu refers to the neighboring Masango populations with whom the Tsogo maintain privileged relationships and also recognized and authorized clan affiliations. The two communities share the same ritual and musical heritage, and probably have a common migratory origin. This piece is usually played during the pariturgical stages of the Bwete ceremonies operating as recreation steps between the liturgical parts. This secular context can at any time take religious aspects. In the harp’s play, we can distinguish a melodic motive, characteristic of the Mitombo instrumental pieces repertoire’s.

  10. Yuma, "the baggage" or, by extension, the knowledge that a person can acquire during his life. This is also a paraliturgical piece of harpists ceremonies. The choir responds with one sentence to each couplet of the harpist-soloist. The answer varies during the progression of the piece to finish on a short answer that induces a slight accelerando in the game.

  11. Mitombo 

  12. Mobota is the name given to the mother who has just given birth. This is a liturgical piece of the Bwete ceremonies evoking the work of childbirth that is traditionally done at home, between women. This refers to the initiation rebirth of the young initiate and the symbolic break of the umbilical cord that connected him to the profane world. The initiation ceremonies are marked by the mbomo, the "python", where a dancer twists his body in front of the worship house, the mbandja, leaving traces on the ground, comparable to the umbilical cord. These will be erased by the dance steps of the new initiates. This piece is played in duet, which is an innovation compared to liturgical practices. 

  13. Kombe guma is the name given to one of the many geniuses of the Ombudi, who must be able to show the way to go through the sunset (Kombe). It is through singing that the old initiates guide the new. Geniuses (mogezi) are ambivalent beings, admired and feared, who guide as they punish. From the relationship with the genius that possesses it, a woman will understand and experience the visible world. These rites aim to catch his genius and turn him into a protective being. This song is accompanied by modern drums replacing traditional percussion instruments.

  14. Mitombo