About the "Harp"

The Begena or King David's Harp

King David's Harp (Begena)

There is something attractive about instruments that are rarely found here in the west. I first encountered the begena during a street festival here in Houston. I was immediately enchanted by the one of a kind sound that this instrument produced. This page gives you a brief description of the history, its play style and a look into why this is one of the easiest lyres to play and most challenging of its class to play well.

Begena the History of King David's Harp

It is believed that the begena, better known as King David's Harp in English speaking portions of the world, originated from Israel.

The story behind the harp cannot be substantiated. But as the lore goes, David played the harp to comfort and calm King Saul who was suffering from insomnia. Due to the oral tradition of the story its factual nature is to be questioned. Still it is believed that the Menelik I is the one who imported the instrument from Isreal to Eritrean and Ethiopian.

As you can see from the image on the right side of this page King David's Harp belongs to the lyre family of instruments.

While the true history of the instrument is in question, certain manuscripts obtained, show the first recored mention of the harp from the 15th century.

Begenas, a unisex instrument, with the primary purpose to accompany prayer and meditation, were once played by nobels, monks, and all other members of of high society.

You can still often hear the instrument being played on the radio during such as Lent. Though the begena is often primarily played at home, it can also be used in the context of a musical accompaniment for singers.

Though it is not uncommon for people to write song especially for begena accompaniment, it is more common for song text to be taken directly from the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Qine, or even from verse and love poem anthologies. Even though the song text that is often sung is of a religious nature and tone, often focusing on life, death, the morality of prayer, and to praise God the instrument is never used during church services in the Ethiopian Orthodox church.

How the Harp is Played

The first school dedicated to teaching the begena was opened in 1972. Until then the instrument, while a prominent part of the society, was rarely seen. Often played during individual mediation or prayer sessions the begena was not actively sought out and could just as easily become a dead art form.

Addis Ababa was the first formal instructor, and as of 2004 the Yared Music School has even begun to offer evening classes giving people more of an opportunity to learn how to play the begena.

A begena is strummed. And while the instrument has ten strings they are not always played. Often focusing on a smaller subset of strings ranging from five to six. Still some instructors offer the full range of the insturment to their students, as is the case of Memhr Sisay Demissae. Memhr Sisay Demissae teaches the full range of play. Listen to the audio sample below to hear how the begena is played.

Play begins on the left side of the lyre and is played from 1sth to 10th with the left-hand plucking the individual strings.

Players use their index finger to play the 3rd and 4th string, while all other strings are played by only one finger often left to play style.

While it is most common to play the lyre with the fingers, girf may also be employed. This system is made of horn or wood and it is used much like a guitar pick to play the individual strings on the King David's Harp.

Even if you decide to play the begena with a girf you can also use your finger tips intermediately. This hybrid system is use by some of the master begena musicians.

Tuning King David's Harp

For musicians that play all ten strings, a method of tuning, quite unique to the begena is employed. String pairs are tuned together to create one set of pitches going into a pentatonic scale.

However, if a five string method of play is incorporated only five of the ten strings will be tuned. These are the 1st, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th string. The other strings are not tuned, nor do they create sound.

Still, if the musician decides to employ a six string style of play the following set of strings are tuned and actively played with the left hand: 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th.

When you ask what are the purpose of the dead strings is, you may wonder if it is just a throw back to the ancient nature of the instrument. The purpose may not be immediately clear, but once you have a begena in hand you will be pleasantly surprised by the reduced number of strings.

These "extra" strings are used to allow the resounding music made by the others strings a chance to vibrate with a life of their own. By using the strings as a place for the fingers to rest during play the musician can save energy and allow the flow of music to come naturally.

For anyone that has not played any type of harp, the position the arm is held in for a prolonged period of time can place the musician under a certain amount of stress causing the laying hand to become tired. With the reduced number of strings used on a begena the amount of fatigue is relatively low as with other large vertical string instruments.

Once you've heard the begena being played you will immediately recognize the deep buzzing reverberation of the strings against the bridge.

Listen to the Begena Being Played

Here is a short demonstation of the begena being played.