Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rapasa Nyatrapasa Otieno is from Kenya and based in Newcastle upon Tyne. His main instrument, the Nyatiti, is a traditional eight-string lyre from the shores of Kenya’s Nam Lolwe (Lake Victoria).

Watch a special performance by Rapasa filmed at his Snape Residency

What is Nyatiti?

The Nyatiti is a traditional eight-stringed plucked lyre (a type of string instrument) played by the Lüo community of Western Kenya. Played whilst sat on a low stool called a then, the bowl-shaped, carved wood resonator is covered in cow skin with eight strings attached and a hole that amplifies the sound. Rapasa Nyatrapasa Otieno is one of the youngest Nyatiti players in Kenya, and the music he creates is inspired by traditional storytelling. His mission is to reclaim the space of traditional and rare instruments in the mainstream.

The Nyatiti is more than just an instrument, it is the voice of the Lüo community. Lüo means ‘to follow’ which is symbolic of how the tribe travelled along the Nile and settled in Kenya. The Nyatiti can be crafted from items found in and around the river itself. It is played to mark births, to celebrate unions and to mourn death. If you hear certain tunes played, the whole village will be aware that someone has passed away.

The eight strings are divided into two halves: the lower four strings which are higher in pitch, represent the first four days after a child is born. The upper four strings, which are lower in pitch, represent the four days after a death. The music is an expression of gratitude. It acts as a symbol of unification and respect within the lake region. Chanting, singing and playing technique combine to make a performance that traditionally lasts throughout the night: whoever has the most audience when dawn breaks is held in highest regard.