CE27 - Culture, créations, patrimoine

The study of evolutionary processes of the harps from Central africa – Ngombi

Submission summary

Human societies share the ability to develop cultural traits and to have them evolve in various geo-cultural environments, imposing different types of constraints on cultural changes. Given the geographic spread of human societies and their vast cultural diversity, these changes vary according to the populations considered and to the nature of the observed cultural domains.
Mechanisms at stake in the transformation of a cultural object are still little-known. While one can easily describe the effects of diversity and hence the results of cultural evolution at one precise moment in time, the processes put in place by human societies to culturally distinguish themselves from one another are still rarely studied. Music and language are two of the cultural domains shared by all human communities on the planet.
The ngombi project proposes to study the transformation processes of musical instruments in oral tradition populations while grounding its approach on inter-disciplinary research, combining methods from social sciences and natural sciences. The aim is to understand the specific mechanisms of instruments’ transformation processes, but also to understand the impact of socio-cultural contexts on these mechanisms.
This study, which claims to be exploratory, will concern more specifically Central African harps. The choice of the instrument and of the study’s perspective are due to the geo-cultural anchoring of the team members (CAR, Gabon, Congo, Uganda), and to the research orientations developed i.e. the global comprehension of creation, transformation and diffusion processes of the musical patrimonies’ elements.
Central African harps that are found nowadays, and which exist in the form of historical artifacts in museums’ collections bear witness of the great diversity of their morphologic and acoustic characteristics, of their repertoires and designations. Despite this diversity, it is nonetheless possible to recognize some similarities grounded for instance on the shape of the sound box, the symbolic representation of the instrument, the designation or the associated songs’ themes. Several studies have shown that these resemblances can transcend the identity distinctive features of the populations who use them (ethnonyms, linguistic groups), as well as their geographical dispersion. One of our first hypotheses is thus that, despite the diversity observed, it is possible to reveal proto-forms (which could be compared to hypothetical “ancestors”) on which would be grounded a categorization of Central African harps through the acknowledgment of common traits. Our aim is to determine if the processes leading to harps’ diversity are concurrents of the transformation of their socio-cultural contexts of performance and/or of identity strategies at different levels. The following hypothesis is to be verified: are the harps’ transformations due to adaptations to their performative context and/or to a multiplicity of markers of identity (ethnic, linguistic, technical, symbolic, etc.)?
By using objects from museum collections as well as objects studied in the field, the novelty of our approach is not only to compare objects considering organological, acoustic and linguistic domains, but also to introduce anthropological data, allowing us to take into account the various factors having an impact of the harps’ variability and diversity.

Project coordination

Sylvie Le Bomin (MNHN - Eco-Anthropologie)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


MNHN - EA MNHN - Eco-Anthropologie
SU - d'Alembert Institut Jean le rond d'Alembert

Help of the ANR 331,587 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2019 - 48 Months

Useful links

Explorez notre base de projets financés



ANR makes available its datasets on funded projects, click here to find more.

Sign up for the latest news:
Subscribe to our newsletter