Type: Plucked Box Lyre > Chordophone.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.2
Country: Eritrea & Ethiopia.
Description: The begena [or bèguèna] Eritrean or Ethiopian stringed instrument that is a plucked box lyre. Having ten strings. Oral tradition identifies the the instrument as the Kinnor of Ancient Israel. It was played by King David to soothe King Saul’s nerves and heal him of insomnia. It was later introduced to Ethiopia by King Menelik I. Its actual origin remains in doubt, though local manuscripts depict the instrument at the beginning of the 15th century [Kimberlin 1978: 13].
Playing Techniques: The begena may also be played using a technique and system called “girf”, wherein a plectrum made of horn or wood is used to pluck the ten strings of the begena. Megabe Sebhat Alemu Aga plays begena both by using his fingertips and girf. The begena is characterized by a very specific buzzing sound, due to U-shaped leather pieces placed between each string and the bridge. The thong for each string is adjusted up or down along the bridge so that the string, when plucked, repeatedly vibrates against the edge of the bridge.
Usage: Due to the instruments relatively intimate and sacred role in society. The begana is not a common musical instrument to find. Meditation and prayer are very private, personal endeavours, and hearsay suggests that the instrument is played by very few and is a dying art. However, in 1972, the Yared Music School in Addis Ababa began formal instruction in the begena. Since 2004, evening courses are organized and the begena is still played.
Construction: The begena has a total of 10 individual gut strings stretched from the box [body] to where the friction tuning rings are located. The rings are tied together from animal hide. A bridge is underneath the strings and body of the instrument. This bridge is of a particular design allowing for the strings to buzz, when they are played.
Citations: Bibliography; Cynthia Tse Kimberlin. “The Bägänä of Ethiopia.” Ethiopianist Notes 2 , 1978, 15-32. Stéphanie Weisser. “Music and Emotion. The Ethiopian Lyre Bagana”. Musicae Scientiae 16 , March 2012, 3-18. Discography; lemu Aga, The Harp of King David. Ethiopiques Vol. 11, 1994. “Éthiopie, les chants de bagana / Ethiopia, bagana songs.” Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire [Ethnographic Museum of Geneva, Switzerland] LXXVIII / VDE 1206, 2006. Alemu Aga, Seyoum Mengistu, Admassu Fikre, Tafesse Tesfaye. The Begena of Elders. The Harp of David in Ethiopia. Laika-Records, 2009. Websites: