This ancient African lyre, depicted in wall paintings in temples and Pharaohs’ tombs, has been the instrument of the Beja peoples since time immemorial. It was from their homeland that it found its way all over the Sudan, and to Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, developing a staggering variety of traditions and styles of playing.
The original five-stringed lyre is the grandfather of a wealth of local instruments found in East Africa, such as the Ethiopian begena, almost as tall as a person, or the Egyptian semsimeya, which has been developed to include as many as 15 strings and play all the oriental scales.
The masankop is indeed the first instrument on which humans could play the basic elements of music simultaneously: melody, harmony, and rhythm. These occur naturally while playing, by muting and opening the strings to let the desired notes sound, while the other hand strums in various rhythms.
Regardless of the materials used to build it, which are often whatever the artist has at hand, the masankop retains its basic shape- a body from which two arms protrude, connected by a cross piece. It is traditionally made with an animal skin wrapped around a wooden bowl or a gourd. Bicycle brake wire is now used for strings; before metal, they were made from the nerves of the gazelle’s leg.