BY JEREMY SHERE
Since the time of the Pharaohs, the masankop (a five-stringed African lyre that’s both strummed and plucked) has been the traditional instrument of the Beja people—tribes that today live in eastern Sudan. Now, Bloomington musician Miguel Merino is trying to bring this ancient lyre into the mainstream.
“Nobody has ever used the masankop as a complete musical instrument before,” says Merino. “My goal is to develop new music on an instrument that’s never been played outside of its traditional setting.”
Soon after arriving in Cairo in 2009 (after graduating from the University of Miami with a degree in music), Merino met Ahmed Said Abuamna, a Beja tribesman, singer, and masankop player. Entranced by Abuamna’s voice and skill on the masankop, Merino hatched a plan to record an album with the Sudanese musician.
“Ahmed knew nothing about Western music,” says Merino, who soon began exploring how the lyre might be used to play rock, jazz, and other Western musical forms. “But he has such a great voice and is such a phenomenal musician that I knew it would work.”
After a year spent learning to play the instrument (and teaching drums at a school for British and American kids to pay the bills), Merino managed to raise more than $15,000 on Kickstarter—an online funding platform for creative projects—and reunited with Abuamna to form a band they called Otaak (a Beja word that translates as “The Man”).
“Ahmed was definitely baffled by the way I was playing the masankop,” says Merino, who had developed techniques and melodies never before played on the instrument. Nevertheless, in 2011 they began recording in a Cairo studio, and their album, titled Bejawiya (which means “a woman in the Beja tribe”), debuted this year. Featuring 13 songs ranging in style from funk/rock to jazz to more traditional East African sounds, the album has been well received.
Today, Merino is back in Bloomington, working to raise funds to reunite with Abuamna, make another album, and tour to promote it. And he’s still exploring the masankop. “I’ll keep using it in different settings, with different people, keep expanding its range,” Merino says. “Hopefully, the album will help bring this great music out into the wider world.”
Learn more about Otaak Band and listen to some tracks on their website.