The Gīcandī script is, by conventional standards, barely a script at all. To the casual eye it is, in fact, part of a musical instrument.
According to the website of the Gīkūyū Centre for Cultural Studies, an independently published blog designed to explore the traditional knowledge of the Gīkūyū people of Kenya, “The Gīcandī is an ancient Gikūyū composition of enigmatic poetry presented in public by two poets in a dialogue of back and forth battle of wits. Composed of reportedly over 150 stanzas, the singer of the Gīcandī had to subject himself to an accurate preparation and learn by heart the high number of stanzas containing as many enigmas: this explains why there were very few Gīcandī singers even in bygone times and why they have practically disappeared now. These initiated singers made their appearance in the various market places passing from one village to another.”
This was, or is, an extraordinarily demanding and capacious form of performance, an epic in the traditional sense. One student of the Gīcandī wrote, “It is a poem of very high poetry, in which the singer spaces freely, passing from one field to another. He touches on all leitmotifs more or less at length. He passes from feasting to merriment to the darkest sadness, from comical to tragical and from lyrical to gruesome or even apocalyptical expressions. He disdains vulgar themes.”
“One of the contestants,” continued the Centre for Cultural Studies website, “would propose an enigma first, and the other would explain it and propose the next in turn. The competition would go on until one of the two failed to give the interpretation and so lost the game. The losing party handed over his musical instrument to the winner.”
And the musical instrument in question, used to accompany the song, was in fact the Gīcandī, after which the performance was named.
“The instrument itself was a small elongated gourd about one and a half to two feet high and about 4 to 5 inches at its widest diameter. The Gīcandī was prepared carefully having its sides engraved with symbolical signs and adorned with cowrie shells (ngugutu), some of these being fixed to the guard itself and others strung to a glassbead, leather or copper wire (munyoori or kirengereri). The inside contained seeds and/or pebbles (mwethia), which on shaking the gourd would strike against thorns (mīigua) stuck through the sides, producing a characteristic sound.
“Traditionally the instrument would be prepared and blessed by a medicine-man, also an expert in this song, [in return for] payment of a ram. It was religiously kept in a leather bag (gataki), specially made for the storage and carrying of the precious instrument.”
These items affixed to the outside of the gourd were not chosen only for percussive or musical effect; nor were they the only additions to the gourd, which would also be extensively inscribed with logograms.
As is often the case when performance, sacred or secular, is accompanied by a text that includes what outsiders think of as pictures, the common assumption is that these are mnemonics or aides-memoire to jog the memory of the singer/performer/priest. Wikipedia, for examples, describes the Gicandi as “a memory device and rattle gourd.”
Kimani Njogu, a modern student of the Gīcandī, explains that there is no distinction to be drawn between the ideograms and the performance itself. “The performer considers the inscribed text an integral part of his performance and thus would make constant reference to the pictograms in the poem. In most Gīcandī performances, the inscribed text and the Gīcandī gourd itself (with the seeds therein) and the poet’s composition dialogically merge indistinguishably.”
Gicandi can be seen on YouTube.
Normally we’re reluctant to rely so heavily on a single source, but in this case we had no choice. What this means, of course, it that we’d love to hear from anyone who can verify, add to, or amend this account.
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