The Toha or Totem Harp is a musical instrument with a unique design inspired by the sociable weaver birds of Southern Africa. These birds build their nests in large, closely-knit communities, serving as a source of inspiration for the collaborative nature of this musical instrument. With two resonators, the Toha or Totem Harp is meant to be played by two musicians, each of whom has access to a set of 22 strings with identical tuning on either side of the instrument. This design allows for a harmonious and synchronized musical experience, much like the work sociable weavers do to build their nests.
How do birds build nests?
Using only their beaks as tools, they transform basic components into nests secure enough to house a growing family of nestlings, competing for their parents’ attention and stretching their wings. When playing the Toha, people can find a nest, the birds’ beaks, the pole around which the nest is supported, and even the overhead telephone wires the pole supports.
TOHA IN THE GALLERY
The toha is one of the most popular instruments with visitors to our touring INSTRMNTS exhibition, as seen here at the Royal Opera House in London during the DELOITTE IGNITE festival. We also performed with the toha and several other instruments at the same event. This instrument usually plays a central role in our performances.
mother and child creating music for nests
The toha has 44 strings divided into two sections of a diatonic scale with three octaves each. The two musicians facing each other can play it using the tip of their fingers or their nails while weaving together a piece of music they themselves create. Picture by Joost.
The INSTRMNTS exhibition has an exciting programme of workshops where the toha is one of the instruments that engage and inspire children. At the Teatro Colsubsidio in Bogota, we adapted the workshops to the organisation’s busy educational programme, which brings in large groups of schoolchildren from all over the city and the surrounding area, as far as Cachipay. They all get a chance to play.
THE TOHA IN CONCERT
The toha has appeared in concerts from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to Carnegie Hall in New York, played by musicians including the Kronos Quartet. In this concert, Salomé Pais Matos, a professional harpist, uses the tip of her finger while Victor Gama uses his nails, two very different techniques.
HOW DO WE BUILD IT?
For us, there isn’t a broken line between the traditional acoustic instruments and the instruments that have been created in our era. Our instruments are ‘born-digital’ because we use 21st century digital technologies. As a result, the final object still follows the lineage of ‘traditional acoustic’ musical instruments, but carries a digital self, a virtual instrument and its own sound library.
VELA 6911 – An Antarctica Diary
Our contemporary instruments wouldn’t be viable if we hadn’t put them in direct dialogue with orchestral instruments such as violins, cellos, bassoons and more. They can withstand the rigours of the stage and stay in tune for long performances.
GET IN TOUCH
If you’re interested in the toha talk to us!
or book an INSTRMNTS exhibition and engage your audience.
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