Friday, 29 April 2016

Assessment of a likembe: K.0025

(Left) Front of likembe. (Right) back of likembe.
A likembe is a hand held African instrument played by depressing and releasing the keys or lamellae. This likembe has eight lamellae made of long, thin pieces of wood or cane of different lengths. The lamellae are lashed to a wooden board using plant material and the board has been attached to part of a turtle shell which acts as a resonator – a rare example of such use. There are two wooden or cane bars placed beneath the lamellae on either side of the lashing and two circular sound holes have been drilled: In the wooden board and in the turtle shell. The join between the wooden board and the shell is filled with a loop of plant material which has then been covered with a dark brown adhesive into which bead fragments have been set.
Diagram showing components of the likembe.

The likembe is part of the lamellophone family which is abundant across most of sub-Saharan Africa. These instruments have been made and used in a variety of different ways and first began to appear at the time of the colonisation of the Congo at the end of the 19th century (Willaert 2011, 63-64). Lamellphones are often associated with the colonisation as they were played to accompany those on trade missions to pass time and keep rhythm (ibid). They were also used socially in every-day situations as well as is rituals and divination 9 Berliner 1978, 14-17). Some lamellophones could also be symbols of status or be reserved for use during a certain ritual (ibid).

Lamellophones were made by the person who would play them (Brincard et al 1989, 75) and as such have a very personal connection to the owner. This instrument has been created with great care and there is evidence of repairs possibly being made by the original owner.

This likembe has suffered many losses of the dark adhesive which has become desiccated, resulting also in loss of some bead fragments. The turtle shell has lost two and half scutes and the remaining scutes are lifting from the bone in areas. There is evidence of previous attempts to consolidate the dark adhesive and scutes. The wooden board is stained and scratched, with surface dirt gathered beneath the lamellae. The lamellae exhibit use wear at the ends which are played. One lamella is loose and the far right lamella is missing where the plant material has broken. Another lamella has split across its length at one end and looks to be made from a different material to the others.

Diagram showing damage of likembe.

All images by the author. Please do not use without permission.


Berliner, P., 1978. The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. London: University of California Press.

Brincard, M., Bourgeois, A., American Federation of Arts, 1989. Sounding Forms: African musical instruments. New York: American Federation of Arts.

Willaert, S., 2011. The growth of an ‘exotic’ collection. African Instruments in the Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels (1877-1913) in Annual Meeting of the International Committee of Musical Instrument Museums and Collections: CIMCIM 2001 – Tervuren: Reports. [Online] Available at [Accessed 27/03/2016]

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

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