The tira whistle is a vessel flute aerophone of the Lobi and closely-related people of southwestern Burkina Faso and parts of the adjoining countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast. It is used, usually with a few other whistles, singers, and a variety of other instruments, to accompany social dances (audio #1, in which the music for the Gan [a neighboring and closely-related people of the Lobi] dance samargua is heard, involves three tira, a rattle, a pair of metal concussion sticks, and three single-headed drums of varying size). The whistles of the Lobi and related people (including the Gan, Birifor, and other ethnic groups) are often anthropomorphic, and the example pictured here in the gallery #1 image is no exception. Sources on the Lobi are not forthcoming concerning the symbolic meaning, if any, of musical instruments with human-like shapes.
Carved from a single block of wood, this whistle consists of a beveled blowhole (see detail #1) at the top of a 6-inch deep air cavity the interior wall of which is penetrated by two small soundholes the exterior openings of which are located on the “shoulders” of the instrument’s anthropomorphic body (detail #2 is a side view of the whistle showing one of these soundholes; the second soundhole is located similarly on the other side of the instrument). Just above the slightly wider lower-end of the instrument a hole is drilled through the whistle; this passes through the instrument below its internal air cavity and therefore is of no acoustical consequence (i.e., these surface holes are not soundholes).
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
A seated or standing performer of this whistle would grasp the lower half of the instrument with one hand while the thumb and index or middle finger of the other hand would cover and uncover the soundholes. The one beveled end of the blowhole is placed just below the player’s lower lip so that the airstream can be directed against the far side of the blowhole rim. One pitch is produced with both of the soundholes covered, a second with one or the other soundhole uncovered, and a third with both soundholes open. The lowest and highest of three pitches produced are approximately F5 and F-sharp5, while the middle pitch is between them. Amongst the Gan at any rate, three such whistles, each with a different pitch and played by as many performers, are performed in hocket to produce a repetitive melodic pattern that constitutes one basic component of the overall musical texture (listen to audio #1).
Whistles of various designs are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but anthropomorphic notch-flute whistles such as the tira appear to be found in more narrowly-defined regions of west and central Africa. There simply is not enough information about this distinct form of aerophone to conjecture about its origin and distribution.
Duvelle, Charles. 1970. Musiques du pay Lobi. LP with liner notes. Disques OCORA OCR 51.n.a. 1984. “Tira.” NGDMI v.3: 600.