While the wooden bow is most often thought of as a weapon, there’s some debate as to whether it was first used for hunting, or instead as a musical instrument, as in the case of the umakhweyana. Also referred to as ugubu or umqangala in isiZulu, most people believe that the musical bow originates from the Khoisan, who play a very similar instrument to the umakhweyana, known as a mbulumbumba.
Generally speaking a musical bow consists of a flexible, wooden stick (measuring anything from half a metre to three metres long), which is strung end to end with a taut cord. It can be played with the hands or a wooden stick. Unlike string instruments used in classical music, the musical bow does not have a built-in resonator, but instead uses an external resonator (e.g. a gourd), which is attached to the back of the string. Although there are differences between the various musical bows, all of them share two things: a resonator, and at least two fundamental notes: an open note (when the player doesn’t shorten or touch the string) and a closed note (where the string is stopped by the player’s hand). Some musical bows have more than two notes – the Zulu umakhweyana has three notes, and the tshihwana played by the Venda people, has four.
Many traditional Zulu instruments are in danger of becoming defunct, as fewer and fewer young people learn the skill of playing them. But thanks to Brother Mpimbili Clement Sithole, who has been teaching students the art of the umakhweyana at UKZN since 1998, the practice of playing the musical bow will live on. Sithole, about whom a documentary has recently been released by UKZN alumni, was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Council for Traditional Music earlier this month.