by Mark Allen Stone
from Jumbie Journal, April 2005
On April 30, the AXF (African Xylophone Festival) will present the first-ever concert appearance in New York of the embaire xylophone of Uganda. This giant 21-key instrument, which takes 6 musicians to play, comes from the Basoga people of this East African nation.
Like many East African instruments, embaire keys are made from the very resonant ensambiya wood. The keys are struck at the end (not the center like balafon or gyil) with sticks made from a heavier wood called enzo.
Traditionally, the keys of an embaire are laid on plaintain stems stretched along both sides of a large hole dug in the ground, aprox. eight feet in length and one and a half feet deep. Long thin bundles of elephant grass are then laid on top of the plaintain stems, creating a cushion for the keys to vibrate freely. Finally the keys are placed on this frame over the hole in the ground. The embaire keys are tuned to a relatively equidistant pentatonic scale spanning just over four octaves.
Because of the profound spiritual connection that music has in Busoga, there are many traditional religious beliefs connected with the embaire. For example, a chicken is sacrificed when the keys are tuned and a goat is sacrificed for every new instrument. It was explained to me by members of the Nakibembe xylophone group that these sacrifices are performed to remember the spirits of ancestors and late members of their group. In the ceremony for a new instrument, blood from a goat is splashed on the underside of the 15th key (from the top). This key is considered to be the heart of the xylophone.
There are six different interlocking parts played on the embaire by three musicians sitting on each side of the instrument. On one side the omusansazi, omuwobato, and omunene parts are played and on the other the omutabuzi, omudumi, and omugabe parts are played. Omusansazi can be translated as the "starter" because it typically begins each composition. This player performs a steady stream of notes in unison octaves. The performer sitting opposite of the starter is the omutabuzi or "mixer". This performer also plays a rapid stream of notes in unison octaves. However, his notes are placed exactly between the notes of the starter, literally mixing their notes together to create a dense stream of tones. This tonebank is at times played as fast as 10 beats per second.
The omuwobato or "player of the small keys" plays the embaire's highest pitches and listens carefully to the tonebank to create a resultant part. This player improvises patterns that he hears within this horizontal tonebank similar to the way jazz musicians improvise melodies based on vertically stacked chord progressions.
The remaining embaire parts are played on the lowest keys of the instrument and are based on kisoga drumming. These musicans play the same rhythms that drummers would play for the popular kisoga dances irongo ("twins") and tamenhaibuga ("do not break my gourd"). They accomplish this incredible feat by playing the xylophone with their bare hands, often striking the edge of a xylophone key with a stick and the center of the key with their hand. The omugabe, or "player of the long drum," plays the lowest key of the instrument and performs rhythms normally played on the lizard skin drum of the Basoga people. The omunene, or "player of the big drum," performs the rhythms of the large enene drum while also at times shadowing the starter part. Finally, the omudumi is the "commander" of the group playing the offbeat endumi rhythms while shadowing the mixer part and leading the ensemble.