Musical instruments that are used for communal performances are played only for rituals, ceremonies, and entertainments sponsored by rulers or prominent people, or during rehearsals for such events. Solo instruments may be played at any time, and generally for personal amusement. The most important communal instruments are drums and reed-pipes.
Venda drums have been described in detail by P. R. Kirby (1934: 29, 34-38).
Ngoma is a large, pot-shaped drum with hemispherical resonator carved out of solid wood, and it is always played with a stick.
Thungwa is the same shape as, but smaller than, ngoma and is also played with a stick.
Murumba has a conical resonator of wood, is held between the thighs and played with the hands. In most cases, the higher-pitched tones of beats on the edge of the drum-skin are used to emphasise the essential rhythm.
Most sets of drums are kept in the homes of chiefs and headmen, and comprise one ngoma, one thungwa, and two or three mirumba. Sets without ngoma may be found in the homes of certain commoners, such as the doctors who run girls' 'circumcision' schools. Drums are often given personal names.
Drums are always played by women and girls, except in possession dances, when men may play them, and in performances in urban areas, where men live together in compounds without their womenfolk. I shall refer to the drums as bass, tenor, and alto respectively, both to indicate their relative pitch and to avoid constant use of Venda words.
The set of end-blown reed-pipes resemble dismantled pan-pipes. They are tuned in two ways and made of different materials.
dza musununu ( made of a species of bamboo) are tuned to a heptatonic scale, and dza ( made of river-reed) to a pentatonic scale. A set (mutavha) of the former may number more than twenty pipes and extend over three octaves, whilst a set of the latter usually number twelve and cover just over two octaves. Nowadays, especially in urban areas, the pipes are often made of an odd assortment of pieces of metal tubing, hose pipe, curtain rods, or pram handles. The river-reed is found in many parts of Vendaland, and it is cut exclusively by the male members of one family.
The names of the pentatonic pipes show an affinity with Northern Sotho, the language of the people from whom they are supposed to have been borrowed. The Venda say that they learnt the pentatonic dances from the Pedi, who live to the south of them, whilst the Pedi say that they borrowed their reed-pipe music from the Venda (note). A consideration of the function of reed-pipe music in Venda society supports the hypothesis that both stories may be right. The Pedi would have heard the heptatonic national dance of the Venda, and borrowed from them the idea of playing reed-pipes in ensembles and then adapted it to their own scale system. Later the Venda borrowed back for secular purposes the Pedi adaptation of their idea with the pentatonic scale, so that it has now become an integral part of their own culture.
The names of the heptatonic pipes are characteristically Venda, and the first to be tuned is phala, which is the key-note of every set and should be of the same pitch in the sets of all the headmen of a tribe. Not all tribes have the same key-note, however, and people will comment that certain chiefs' pipes can be played together, and others cannot. For instance, the tunings of phala at Makonde, Dzimauli, Lufule, and Thengwe are respectively 284, 244, 240 and 236 v.p.s.
After phala has been cut and tuned, smaller pipes are made to provide the ascending scale, and then larger pipes for the descending scale. The pipes are tuned adjacently, and sometimes tested in groups of three, but I never heard tunings tested by intervals of the octave, fifth, or fourth. The final adjustment of the tunings takes place only when the pipes are tested by a team of players: the sound of the total musical pattern reveals errors of tuning that were not evident when the pipes were tested separately.
Each reed-pipe has a name according to its place in the scale, but the names seem to have little relation to the notes' musical functions, and they are never used to identify notes; in fact, I found few experts, and still fewer performers, who knew the names of all the notes, and none who could explain their significance. However, the pipes thakhulana, phalana, dangwana and kholomwana play the same melody as thakhula, phala, dangwe and kholomo, but an octave higher; and the ending -ana is a diminutive so that thakhulana, for instance, means 'little thakhula'. Thakhula means 'the lifter', a name which may refer to its position in the melody of the national dance, tshikona: it is the last note of the phrase, and is one tone above the key-note (phala), with which the repetition of the melody begins; the rhythm halts slightly on this note. Similarly, tshiaravhi means 'the answerer', and it follows the key-note, which is always the first note played. Thakhula and tshiaravhi are sometimes called respectively mvusi (the raiser) and mbidzi (the caller), names which are also related to their musical function. The meaning of the other names of the pipes, such as kholomo (head of cattle), are obscure (note).
The reed-pipes are always played in ensembles comprising at least one complete set. Each dancer blows only one tone, but according to a variety of sequences and rhythms that produce total melodic patterns.