The Music and Culture of the Kikuyu Tribe

Kikuyu Introduction

(Jeff Ethier)


Flying over Kenya, you spot the large capital city of Nairobi in East Africa. Within this city, and spreading north through the country, lies the home of the Kikuyu Tribe, also known as the Gikuyu or Agikuyu tribe. It is bright and sunny outside with temperatures ranging from the mid 20’s to just above zero degrees celsius annually. From mountain ranges to large city landscapes, Kenya is home to many different African tribes. The largest tribe in Kenya is the Kikuyu Tribe, who have become a major economic and political influence. This tribe holds the most unique and interesting history that has lead to this large influence in business.

The tribe originally started in West Africa along with other Bantu tribes. The founder of the Kikuyu tribe is a man known as Gikuyu and his wife Mumbi. It is believed that Ngai (God) took Gikuyu to the top of Mt. Kenya and told him to build his home there. Together, he and his wife both had nine children who became the foundation of the nine Kikuyu clans.1

During the Bantu migration, the Kikuyu tribe arrived at the towering Mt. Kenya where they settled, relying heavily on their farming and agriculture. The Kikuyu tribe now makes up twenty two percent of the country's population. On the map to the right, the labels clearly distinguish the different tribes of Kenya and their population spread. The Kikuyu tribe, as you can see, are settled within Nairobi and the lands north of the capital including Mt. Kenya. Other tribes they are closely associated with include Embu, Mbeere and the Meru. Currently, most of the Kikuyu tribe population resides around the lands of Mt. Kenya, which include the towns Nyeri, Muranga and Thika.2

When the British invaded Africa to colonize, most of the Kikuyu tribe’s land was taken. This angered the Kikuyu tribe, who eventually participated in the Mau Mau rebellion which later led to the independence of Kenya. The first Kenyan president to be elected in this time, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Kikuyu.3 This allowed the tribe to hold a major influence in the economic and political business of Kenya.

Kenya is home to a wide variety of musical elements and styles. This is due to the vast amount of tribes and clans that have their own customs and traditions in music and culture. To name a few specific types of Kenyan traditional music, ethnic groups such as Luo, Maasai, Akamba, and of course Kikuyu all have a unique and diverse entertainment and religious background. These entertainment and religious backgrounds are in each tribe’s music culture, which form the tradition incorporated in their dance, ceremonies, and spiritual worship.

Exploring the Kikuyu tribe, you can find many different cultural and musical elements. These elements are made up from their social culture, the instruments they use, the dances they create, and the ceremonies they hold. Today, the Kikuyu people still use these musical elements in their daily lives.

Social Culture

(Genevieve King) (Lindsey Humburg)

Below is the portrait of a traditional Kikuyu dancer, donning a handmade ostrich feathered headdress, and intricate costume, typical of Kenyan dancers.4


One aspect that makes the social culture of the Kikuyu Tribe so fascinating, is that for thousands of years their traditions of African Social evolution have blended with modern influences of the 20th century to make their culture what it is today. The well-educated, economically and politically successful tribe, originating from West Africa, make up nearly 22 percent of Kenya’s total population.5
The Kikuyu tribe is dynamic in culture. Having inhabited their land for nearly four hundred years, they have established themselves in many ways. Much like modern cultures we experience every day, the Kikuyu tribe has established its very own values, language, and expressions, as well as immersing its people into culinary, musical, artistic, intelligent, and historical worlds, which, combined with their unique ethnic traditions and social norms, create a lifestyle that can only be called Kenyan. Although English and Swahili are Kenya’s national languages, across the nation, close to forty different dialects can be heard from each of its different ethnic groups.6 In fact, the people of the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya actually primarily speak their very own Kikuyu language. This unique language has become so popular, some consider it to be the nation’s third language of choice.7 The Kikuyu land can be distinctly indentified by the Kirinyaga, an immense mountain range that surrounds the land and has come to be known as the “shining mountain”.8 There lays Mount Kenya, as well as other fertile lands, ideal for the agriculture that many of the Kikuyu people rely on.9
Kenyan cuisine as a whole is quite diverse, including breads such as Chapatti, which was developed in India, rices such as Ugali, and meats including chicken, beef, goat and fish. Vegetables and fruits are also very plentiful in the fertile lands of Kenya.10 Traditional Kikuyu foods are still quite popular among the people today. Some include potato, rice, and bean dishes like githeri, mukimo, and irio. Many Kikuyu families also enjoy cooked vegetables, and many of the meats that can be found throughout the country.11 The Kikuyu tribe is also fond of Kenya’s national dish, Nyama Choma, which is a form of char grilled beef. Their diet also includes lots of tea, which is often served with almost any meal.12 The Kikuyu tribe relies deeply on agriculture. Even the children of the tribe grow up working on the lands. Most of the time, young girls work in the fields or in the homes, assisting their mothers with caretaking and household chores. The boys however, work hard to raise their family’s animals. They often grow almost all the crops they eat, such as bananas, millet, sugarcane, maize, black beans and a variety of vegetables. Livestock and cattle are also grown, and used for the production of goods, as well as, in some cases, religious sacrifices.13 The Kikuyu tribe has a reputation of being a group of very hardworking people; many of whom are involved in businesses both in agriculuture, and and now more and more are moving to other parts of the river valley, including land that traditionally belonged to the Kalenjin tribe, where they have begun growing coffee and tea, two of Kenya’s major cash crops.14
Another fascinating aspect of the Kikuyu’s is their taste for art and artifacts, that are manually crafted using materials from local craftsmen and artists. Many of these precious artifacts, such as hand carved statues, beaded jewelry, and beautiful Kikoyas or African sarongs, are sold to both local and international tourists. Another art of Kenyan culture is music and dance. Instruments such as guitars and drums are used to create harmonious beats and rhythms, essential for traditional Kenyan style dancing.15 Dancing has been a major aspect of Kikuyu social culture since the beginning of their history. One way for the people to preserve their history is to remember the dancing. It was common for young men and women to sneak off to isolated areas where the women would perform traditional dances for the men to watch. Although physical contact between the sexes was seen as inappropriate, they were able to converse and relate to each other in this way. Some of the traditional dances were known as Nguchu, Nduumo, and Mũgoiyo.16 Traditional music and dance are very monumental parts of the Kikuyu Tribes social and religious lives. The Kikuyu tribe is predominately made up of Christians, however, traditionally, the Kikuyu people believed in a polytheist religion focusing on a god named Ngai. Ngai was thought to be the creator and provider for the Kikuyu tribe, and was believed to have lived at the top of the mountain. Many of the people of Kenya including the Kikuyu Tribe play sports. The most popular sport is soccer, but running is also very competitive in the area.17 Theatre and literature also play major roles in Kenyan and Kikuyu culture. Much of their history has been passed on from generation to generation in the form of songs and stories. The Kenyan National Theatre is a place where the people can watch original educational, ethnic and entertaining performances. Education is held very highly in Kikuyu culture, and it is very important that children receive proper educations as they grow up.18
A major tradition of the Kikuyu Tribe is the loyalty to family. The tribe’s peoples are very family oriented and share many traditions that have been passed down for many generations. For example, the first born child has been traditionally named after his or her father's father or mother, and the second boy or girl, his mothers father or mother. This concept was rooted in the belief that the spirit of the deceased grandparent would carry on to the child. This tradition, however, is no longer as popular, because life spans have lengthened and often times the grandparents are alive when the grandchild is born. However, traditions such as males paying a dowry, or pride price, are still important aspects of Kikuyu family culture.19 Although colonization of the Kikuyu land has lead to the erosion and misplacement of many of the traditions of the Kikuyu culture, much of their history still lives on. Whether it be through the performances of traditional dances, the growing of crops on a field as old as the family who nurtured it, or the successes of members of the tribe itself. A legend in the land of the Kikuyu Tribe is Wang’ombe wa Ihũũra, who, as legend holds, fought off a vicious and lethal leopard with simply his bare hands. Although less infamous, another member of the Kikuyu tribe truly changed the lives of all the tribe members who would follow him. Kenya’s very first president, and a major influence in the nation’s battle for independence from the British, was a Kikuyu man by the name of Jomo Kenyatta.20


(Josslen Leonard)

The art of dancing plays a major role in traditions and the cultures throughout Africa. The Kikuyu tribe especially, enjoys and appreciates the skill of dancing because it is a way for young men and women to find their soul mates. It is also a source of entertainment. The tribe travels to isolated areas to respect the culture of dancing and feasting. This is a time for peace, happiness, and fun. The people of the Kikuyu tribe also have dance troupes or tribal groups that perform certain dance rituals or routines. It is a single functioning unit that involves representing its tribe, community, and nation. These dances also tend to represent their values and beliefs. Unlike how we Americans dance today, Kikuyu men do not touch their women in any kind of way. Dancing is well respected and sexuality is viewed and observed which is why touching while dancing is not allowed. They also use their dancing socials to mingle and socialize. Just like other cultures such as Cubans and Americans, the kikuyu tribe has numerous types of dances such as, Nguchu, Nduumo, Mugoiyo, Gichukia, Ndachi ya irua, which all have a story or deep meaning behind them.

Throughout the Kikyu tribe, dancing is taken as a serious matter. It is a symbol of power involving the combination of four forces that are looked upon highly, which are mental energy, muscle strength, force of gravity, and momentum. These four traits create a skillful dancer. Also, known as a warrior dancer. Warriors represent adulthood, a warrior dancer relates to notions of self-reliance and the concept of manhood. The motion of dancing is also a substitution for feeling powerful.
Dancing is also seen as a communication tool for the Kikuyu people. It is more like poetry because it exhibits specific design features of language. Tribal dances are like telling a story in front of your eyes, but with no words. It pulls you in and captures your attention through its motions and moods. Creating the mood and setting. Dancing is an important factor in ceremonies and religious events because dancing is a sacred skill.
The Kikuyu tribal dancing is way for them to welcome guest and give or show praise with others. During the dancing events tribal dancers are very energetic and the mood is upbeat. The fast tempo keeps the guests and listeners on their feet and excited. After a long day of work, this is a way for them to escape and relax.
The Ndachi ya irua is actually a ceremony also known as the Irua Ceremony. It involves the circumcision of females. Meaning, the marked cut-off point between child and female. During this sacred time, relatives and friends sing and dance about sexual knowledge and the rule governing the responsibilities of social relationships. This tradition is still ongoing today. As I stated before, dancing involves traditions and has a meaning behind it. The kikuyu people take this process very serious, but still know how to have a good time by doing other traditional dances.

(Leeanna Miller)
African traditions greatly emphasize dance, for movement is regarded as an important mode of communication. The dance utilizes symbolic gestures such as props, masks, costumes, body painting, and other visual devices. The basic movements may be simple, emphasizing the upper body, torso, or feet; or they may be complex, involving coordination of different body parts and intricate actions such as fast rotation, ripples of the body, and contraction and release, as well as variations in dynamics, levels, and use of space. The dance may be open to all, or it may be an activity in which one, two, three, or four individuals (regardless of sex) take turns in the dancing ring. Team dances also occur. The formations may be linear, circular, serpentine, or columns of two or more rows.

Every dance and every movement in a dance has a symbolic meaning. Also, not all dances are preformed for the same purpose. Examples and explanations of some of the dances preformed by the Kikuyu tribe are:

Warrior Dances -This type of dance is often performed at cultural events and at funerals. Dance movements mimic battlefield tactics such stabbing with the end of the horsetail. This dance consists of phrases of movements. A phrase consists of a "turn" which occurs in every phrase and then a different ending movement. These phrases are added back to back with slight variations within them, and make up the dance.

Dances of Love -These kind of ritual dances are performed on special occassions, such as weddings and anniversaries. One example is preformed solely by women during weddings in honor of the bride.

Rites of Passage and Coming of Age Dances - This is performed to mark the coming of age of young men and women. They give confidence to the dancers who have to perform in front of everyone. It is then formally acknowledged they are adults. This builds pride, as well as a stronger sense of community.

Dances of Welcome – This is a show of respect and pleasure to visitors, as well as a show of how talented & attractive the host villagers are.

Dances of Possession and Summoning - These are common themes, and very important in many Traditional African Religions. They all share one common link: a call to a Spirit. These spirits can be the spirits of Plants or Forests, Ancestors, or Deities. The Orishas are the Deities found in many forms of African religion. Each Orisha has their favorite colors, days, times, foods, drinks, music, and dances. The dances will be used on special occasions to honor the Orisha, or to seek help and guidance. The Orisha may be angry and need appeasing. He comes in the form of a giant statue carried from the forest out to the waiting village. There is much dancing and singing. During this time the statue is raised up, growing to a height of around 15". Then the priest communes and people pray to the statue that they may be blessed with good luck over the coming years, and if there are any major events to be aware of, such as drought, war, or other things.


(Paige Murphy)
Traditionally the music in Kenya is polyrhythmic, meaning it incorporates several beats simultaneously. Kenyan music is based on humming, drumming, singing and dance. The dominant instrument in Kenya is the guitar. But the music of the Kikuyu tribe is mainly defined by language; instruments are not the defining key of their music.21 Not much could be found when looking for specifics of the instruments the Kikuyu tribe uses. But what was found was that they use the traditional African drums, the guitar, gicandi, rattles and shakers, and small harps. The gicandi is a rattle like instrument made of gourd. Gourd is a container or ornament made from the dried hallowed out skin of a large fruit with hard skin. A gourd instrument is used in most of Kikuyu music.22 grd3.gif

The traditional African drum, Djembe, is construed to play by striking the drum by the palms and fingers of one’s hand. It is a skin covered drum that is normally twelve inches in diameter and twenty four inches high. They are also found in smaller sizes. The goblet shape, wood density, carvings inside, and the skin contribute t the range of tones that it can produce. Primary notes are referred to as bass, tone and slap. Advance players can produce other variety of tones. Slap is a high sharp sound, tone is round and full, and bass is low and deep. Bass notes can be produced by hitting the skin with the palms and fingers toward the center of the drum. Achieving this note requires focused energy. Producing tone and slap notes by hitting the skin near the rim of the drum. Slap requires dispersed energy, while tone requires focused energy. The Djembe can be found in Western music, it plays a key role in music that requires a high percussive rhythm section. Artists such as The Beetles, Ben Harper, Queens of the Stone Age, and many other bands have incorporated the drum into their music.23

One main part of the Kikuyu tribe’s music is the storytelling music, or storytelling riddles. All cultures of Kenya have storytelling riddles or music. But the Kikuyu tribe practices an elaborate sung riddle games, which is very different than all the other cultures who practice storytelling songs. Riddles are normally exchanged in the evening before story telling sessions, and the enigma is preformed during the times of daylight. The sung riddle game is a duet called the enigma poem also called a gicandia is a set text poem of riddles. It is sung by two players in a duet that are in competition, usually fictionally betting any thing from villages, cattle, and other items of economic life on the outcome of the competiton. This duet is very much different from that f the normal Kikuyu singing that is preformed by a soloist and a chorus. This enigma poem is memorized and recited by heart; one gicandia can consist of 127 stanzas. Normally a decorated gourd rattle, like the gicandi, accompanies the singing of the two young competitors during the enigma poem.24


(Frances Negron)

The Kikuyu have a dynamic recording industry that includes gospel and popular music in their traditional pentatonic scale and western music styles. After much research, it was found that the Kikuyu use musical instruments made by gourds. The Kikuyu tribe uses rare rattles that are each hand-crafted and individually made out of gourds, cowrie shells, and leather. One source states:
"The Kikuyu had a very elaborate sung riddle game, a duet called the enigma poem or gicandia set text poem of riddles. It is sung in a duet and the players are in a competition. The duet is strikingly different than the normal singing of the Kikuyu performed by a soloist and a chorus. The poem is learned by heart. A decorated gourd rattle accompanies the singing. One gicandi may consists of 127 stanzas.” (
There is also a traditonal story among the Kikuyu that states that in 1907 an inventor saw a Kikuyu man holding the instrument you see here. It is also said that early fiddles had resonators that were made out of gourds, just like the Kikuyu's rattles.


(Lauren Peters)

The Kikuyu people profess Christianity as their main religion, but many Kikuyu still practice old religious ceremonies and sacrifices, especially during times of dire circumstances. The Kikuyu have long been a monotheistic culture and traditionally worshipped the god, Ngai, who is associated with Mt. Kenya. When disease strikes the Kikuyu and reaches epidemic levels, a traditional ceremony called the Battle of the Spirits is performed. The Kikuyu believe these spirits haunt their households, clinging to bushes, doors, and windows. The spirits are responsible for bringing illness and death to the tribe and must be symbolically fought and defeated. The tribal elders choose a day for the ceremony and the ceremony begins with the sounding of the war horns. The tribe’s members grab clubs, sticks, and other weapons. All of these weapons must be made of wood and not metal. Metal weapons might cut the spirits and spill their blood upon the ground, defiling it. The Kikuyu beat the spirits from the bushes, doors, and windows, making their way to the river. Once at the river the war horns resound once more. The weapons are dropped into the river which sweeps them away. This symbolizes the spirits being swept away by the river of death. The Kikuyu beat the dust from their bodies then return home, singing traditional joyful melodies. They cannot look back, however, or else incur the spirits’ wrath. The next day the mothers of infants and small children too young to participate in the ceremony shave their children’s hair into a cross to ward off spirits, bathe them, and paint them with red ochre.

The Kikuyu tribe has seen many changes due to their adopted religion of Christianity, many of which can be seen in the modern funeral ceremony. Traditionally, a messenger of the god Ngai failed to deliver an important message to the Kikuyu that they would never die. The chameleon was to deliver this message, but was too slow. Folklore and songs often portray the chameleon poorly due to his failure to deliver the message. Next, an owl was to deliver the message, but the owl was devious and told the Kikuyu they would die instead. The Kikuyu people still fear owls and see their hooting as an omen of misfortune. Even in modern times they will chase owls away from their homesteads for fear of impending death. Traditional burials were very complex and contain many practices which are no longer deemed suitable or appropriate. These include animal sacrifices, ceremonial sexual intercourse, and the practice of only burying specific individuals. Only elders, rich men, and children were traditionally buried. The bodies of other citizens were abandoned in the African brush to be eaten by hyenas. Modern practices involve individuals being buried, often in their yard at home. A funeral procession leads the body, which is not embalmed, to the open grave. The members of the procession sing traditional Kikuyu songs in call and response style. These melodies are sad and haunting in style. The body is lowered into the grave and the earth is placed over it. Once the earth is placed over it, flowers are planted on top. These flowers are planted in a very specific way with the stems down in the earth as if the flowers had grown there naturally. The ceremony is then concluded.

(Carissa Rhule)
Rites of Passage
Traditionally there was a circumcision ceremony for boys and girls by age grades of about five-year periods. All of the men in that circumcision group would take an age-grade name. Times in Kikuyu history could be gauged by age-grade names. It is thought that the early Thagicu, one of the ancestral groups of the Kikuyu, borrowed this system from Cushitic and Nilotic peoples. However, we see this same kind of structure among the Nguni people of Southern Africa, such as the Zulu. We still see this age-grade system, organizing newly-adult men into a warrior class and the graduating warriors into junior elders, among the Kukuyu's neighbours the Maasai. This practice of circumcision for boys is still loosely followed, but it is a family matter and is done in hospital nowadays. Some men still prefer to be called by their age-grade name, but as the people have expanded geographically and in number, and as rapid cultural change occurred, the age-grade system has basically died out. The female circumcision which caused early divisions in Christianity has lost some of its emphasis among Evangelical Christians. It is still practiced widely among those with traditional beliefs and Roman Catholics. It is still officially discouraged by most churches. Younger generations and more urban families have abandoned the practice.

Boys prepare to be defenders of the home while the girls prepare for marriage. Circumcision for the boys is compulsory, but the girls is voluntary. How ever the traditional view is that all boys and girls have to be circumcised. Boys are trained by their fathers while girls are trained by their mothers and grand mothers. Normally, at age 15. This is the age when they pass from childhood to adulthood. Circumcision is normally done in open air in the field. Spectators are many to witness those who do not preserver the pain. Crying during circumcision means that the boy cannot marry because all girls do not want a coward. In the same way, if a girl cries during circumcision, she can hardly be married since boys want a courageous wife. The training for both girls and boys is done in groups and usually takes 6 months. Long ago, this was how age was estimated since they didn't have calendars. The young men and women were then associated with their circumcision age group. The age group name was given according to the current events. For example,, If there was a drought, and only yams were available for food, then the group would be called the yam season group. They would then count how many full moons since that time, and hence an estimate age would be determined.

The Right Of Passage For Kikuyu Boys


(Kyle Taylor)
The Kikuyu continues to thrive as the largest and most established tribe in Kenya. From the birth of the original nine clan members of the tribe to the present day, the customs and traditions of this tribe are consistently passed down from generation to generation. Due to the size of this particular tribe, the Kikuyu represents the backbone of the Kenyan economy. The influence of the Kikuyu tribe extends from every area of the country including political changes along with the development of business. A large part of the success of the Kikuyu is the roots of their origins and their skills such as farming. Without such skills the tribe would have been unable to grow into the empire that is responsible for the independence of Kenya from the British. The country of Kenya is composed of a melting pot of different tribes and religious groups making Kenya a very diverse nation. The culture of the Kikuyu Tribe is heavily influenced by music and instruments throughout their daily life.

Over the last couple of centuries the Kikuyu tribe has had the opportunity to adapt to current issues and become a very powerful asset to Kenya. This particular tribe has come a long way do to their ability to progress and adapt. It is beneficial to live in areas of fertile land for agriculture, however the Kikuyu tribe was not created over night. The unique ability for the Kikuyu people to adapt and consistently improve their daily lives has enabled the tribe to acquire just over twenty percent of the entire Kenyan population. This has allowed the Kikuyu people to develop their own language and dialect that differs from the national language of Kenya, which is Swahili. Due to the fertile land of Mount Kenya this particular tribe has had the ability to produce a wide variety of food items and an extensive menu compared to other tribes in the region. The farming skills of the Kikuyu tribe not only benefits the tribe members, but also plays a key role in raising cash crops such as coffee and tea in order to stimulate the Kenyan economy.

Dancing is an activity that is considered a necessity for the tribe and even acts as an avenue for tribe members to discover their soul mates. Not only do the Kikuyu people use dancing as a way to communicate, but it is also an act of power that will help distinguish a man from a boy. The various dances in the tribe have been passed down from previous generations and signify certain stories and underlying meanings. The Kikuyu people have developed certain dances for different occasions including a welcoming visitors, weddings, and a symbol of love. Dances are used as a way of communication to tribe members and other visitors. The guitar is the principal instrument of the Kikuyu, however drums and singing are also involved in a majority of dances and certain celebrations. Interesting enough, the religion of the tribe is one area that has changed the most from the early origins. The majority of the tribe practice Christianity, however original ceremonies and rituals are still performed when necessary.

Overall, the Kikuyu tribe has emerged as a key component to the economy and political structure of Kenya. The advancements in every area of society has allowed the tribe to thrive for centuries without any outside assistance. The success of the Kikuyu tribe all comes down to a core belief and ceremonial system that has been passed down from many generations and musical teachings.

Leakey, L. S. B. The Southern Kikuyu before 1903. London: Academic, 1977. Print. Middleton, John. "Kikuyu." The Central Tribes of the North-eastern Bantu; the Kikuyu, including Embu, Meru, Mbere, Chuka, Mwimbi, Tharaka, and the Kamba of Kenya. London: International African Institute, 1953. Print. Perham, Margery Freda. "The Story of Parmenas Mockerie of the Kikuyu Tribe." Ten Africans. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1963. Print. Prins, A. H. J. "Kikuyu African People." East African Age-class Systems; an Inquiry into the Social Order of Galla, Kipsigis, and Kikuyu. Groningen: J. B. Wolters, 1953. Print. Tignor, Robert L. "Kikuyu Tribe." The Colonial Transformation of Kenya: the Kamba, Kikuyu, and Maasai from 1900 to 1939. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1976. Print.



Yodelers, Guitars and Accordions:
Classic Kikuyu Music

Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Friends: 
Katanga Acoustic Guitar

George Mukabi:
Kenyan Guitar Master

Jean-Bosco Mwenda
and Edouard Masengo

Kikuyu Folk Songs Artist : Joseph Kamaru

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