This pluriarc is a bow-lute chordophone from the western provinces (Littoral, West, Northwest, and Southwest) of Cameroon. Similar specimens to this instrument are found in a few European museums (see in particular the holdings of Musée d'ethnographie de Genève), but in general there is very little published or online information about pluriarcs in Africa in general much less on this region of Cameroon in particular. Cameroonian ethnic groups that appear to have at least historically utilized pluriarcs similar to the one pictured here in their music making include the Banyangi (of the Littoral Province) and the Bamum (of the West Province). Amongst the Bamum, where the pluriarc is called mapu, luku, and paata, it is (or perhaps was) used as part of an ensemble of instruments incorporated into initiation ceremonies of the nguri secret society (audio #1 is an example of this context and includes a paata). Njoya and Bois (1997) refer to these instruments, including the pluriarc, as “symbols of the nguri.” (p. 16) This source is the only one encountered with a picture of a Cameroonian pluriarc being performed (p. 8). Information on the Banyangi pluriarc and its contexts of use was not found.
The resonator of this pluriarc is constructed from two pieces of wood. The bottom bowl-like piece has been hollowed-out from a block of wood. However, the bowl section terminates several inches before the top end of the resonator, leaving two parallel cantilevered projections (see detail #1). The second resonator component is a soundboard with a flat bottom and a high (1.5 inches) but integral bridge all carved from a single piece of wood. On the backside of the bridge there is a line of six small holes drilled through the soundboard and two triangular-shaped sound holes. The soundboard component is attached to the resonator component by lacing. A long and narrow strand of rattan is threaded through aligned holes drilled in the edges of the two resonator components, sometimes running on top of the soundboard, at other times below the lip of the resonator body (see detail #2). The six individual necks, made from reeds, are attached to the bottom side of the resonator bowl (see detail #3). One end of each reed is shaven to a point that is then inserted into one of six holes drilled into a vertical face carved into the bottom of the resonator. This plane of necks is held tight against the lower flat projection of the resonator body with rattan lacing. This plane of necks, even as it starts to curve upwards, is supported by two braces (see detail #4) each consisting of two parallel sticks, one above the plane and the other below, all held together tightly with rattan lacing. The final 5-6 inches of each neck is left unsupported and with a severe upward curve. Each of the six wire strings of this pluriarc is knotted through a string hole and one of the sound holes at the backside of the bridge (see detail # 5), runs up and over the top of the bridge, and then the length of the instrument to the terminus of one of the necks (see detail #6). The string passes through a slit on the flattened end of the neck and is then tightly wound around the neck several times as the neck is flexed. This tension both pulls the string taut and, over time, trains the neck into its curved form.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The one picture encountered of a Cameroonian pluriarc similar to the instrument pictured here being performed shows the musician seated on the ground cross-legged with the butt-end of the resonator cradled between his calves and the instrument as a whole in a nearly vertical position with the curved necks pointing toward the performer’s head. It appears only the player’s thumbs are used to sound the strings by plucking; the other fingers are used to support or steady the instrument. No information was found on the tuning of the instrument or its playing technique. Though adjusting the pitch of a single string after it is strung appears difficult if not impossible, the available picture suggests that before a performance the player may be able to make pitch adjustments by sliding the ball of wound-up string up or down the neck itself. This is conjecture, not fact.
Kubik (2014) summarizes the distribution of pluriacs in present-day Africa in terms of three regions: Angola/Namibia/Botswana; West-central (the region to which the specimen discussed her belongs); and Southwestern Nigeria. These groupings are based on the designs of the pluriarcs found in each region. He also states that the origin of this instrument type is unknown, but that it probably preceded by several centuries the arrival of Europeans to these areas of Africa. He further speculates that it was likely invented in one locale and eventually spread to its other current locations through cultural contacts between African peoples.
Blench, Roger. 2009. “A guide to the musical instruments of Cameroun: classification, distribution, history and vernacular names.” Website accessed 08/08/2017: http://www.rogerblench.info/Ethnomusicology/Papers/Africa/Cameroun/Cameroun%20musical%20instruments%20book.pdf
Kubik, Gerhard. 2014. “Pluriarc.” GDMI v.4: 142-143.
Musée d'ethnographie de Genève. Website accessed 08/08/2017: https://www.ville-ge.ch/meg/index.phpNjoya, Aboubakar Njiassé, and Pierre Bois. 1997. Liner notes for Cameroun—Le Royaume Bamum CD, Inedits W 260074.