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The Kirby Collection

The Kirby Collection is a unique and irreplaceable pre-urbanization example of the musical heritage of Southern Africa.

This is an internationally recognized collection and is an important research and educational resource, making a key contribution to the knowledge and understanding of musical traditions.

The Kirby Collection is housed on the ground floor of the South African College of Music and is currently only available for research to University staff and students.

Percival Kirby was an internationally acclaimed historian and musicologist and is regarded as a pioneer in the field of South African musicology. He arrived in South Africa from Scotland in 1914. As Musical Organiser to the Natal Education Department from 1914 to 1921 he became aware that the music of many local communities was disappearing under western influence.

In the early 1930s, while Professor of Music at the University of the Witwatersrand, he undertook a comprehensive study of the musical practices of South African people and built up an extensive and valuable collection of musical instruments through field trips and donations.

This collection and his research became the basis of his book The Musical Instruments of the Native Races of South Africa (publisher Oxford University Press, 1934). This book still remains the standard reference on the subject.

The Collection comprises more than 600 musical instruments, the majority of which were used in Southern Africa prior to 1934. It includes instruments made and played by all indigenous Southern African groups. It also includes a smaller collection of instruments from Western Europe and from Asia for comparative purposes.

The Collection was assembled before the rapid increase of urbanization in South Africa, but even during the field trips Professor Kirby undertook in the 1930s to study the musical practices of South African people and to observe how the instruments were played and how they were made, he became very aware that these instruments were becoming obsolete. In the preface to the 2nd edition of his book Kirby explained that a typical example of this was the Venda mbila. The craftsmen who made the mbila and the musicians who played it had all died and as they were unable to train successors the instrument was no longer being made and is now extinct. On a trip to Bechuanaland in 1931 to hear the Tswana reed flutes he stated that it took considerable trouble to organize a group of 23 players because performances had to take place out of sight as the missionaries regarded these dances as "heathen". In his autobiography Wits End (publisher Howard Timmins, 1967) Professor Kirby stated that in the future it would no longer be possible to write such a book as the impact of foreign influences had caused many of the instruments to become obsolete. It is these instruments that make up the greatest part of his collection.

Some Examples

The numbers in the captions refer to the catalogue reference in the database.

Zulu — Friction drum (ingungu). Ceramic, skin.
Tsonga — Sideblown trumpet (xipalapala). Horn.
Tsonga — Braced gourd bow (nkoka). Reed, gourd, cloth, plant material, metal, plastic.
Pedi — Cone flute (tsula). Skin, bone, feather.
Venda — Musical bow and friction stick (tshizambi). Wood, plant material, commercial string, fruit shells.
KK12 & KK18
Lemba, Venda — Thumb piano (deze) and resonator (demba).
Thumb piano: wood, metal; resonator: gourd, shells, vegetable fibre.
Zulu — One of a pair of ankle rattles (umfece). Insect material (cocoons), plant material.


The musical instruments have been entered on a database. Each item in the collection has been digitally photographed and linked to this database which, it is planned, will be made available for research purposes in the future with possible links to other collections.