Toha: A harp to summon the return of the sociable weaver birds

Victor Gama

1 June 2023

Victor Gama describes the origins, making and performing of a two-person harp.

The Angolan composer Victor Gama develops new musical instruments that draw on diverse cultures of the world. We’re very curious to learn more about his two-person harp.  

✿ What does the word Toha mean and what language does it come from?

The name toha is derived from “totem harpa” in Portuguese and was inspired by the nest of sociable weaver birds which inhabited the desert region stretching from the Namibe to the Kalahari in Southern Africa. Sociable weavers built collective nests around the branches and trunks of trees, even using telephone poles. During the periods of armed conflict that occurred in Southern Angola, the birds became extinct, leaving the nests empty. The instrument was built specifically to evoke the spirit of the bird, summoning its return. It can be played by two musicians who sit facing each other with the instrument between them. The toha has 44 strings and each player has a set of 22 strings with a three-octave diatonic scale. 

✿ How did the idea of a two-person harp come to you?

Several traditional instruments in Angola are played by more than one musician. The Angolan marimba is an example frequently played by up to three musicians. This collective use of instruments is a symbol of unity, balance and harmony and I wanted to explore this connectedness and the shared experience of music and bring it to children and young people through workshops that happen within the instrmnts exhibition. Instrmnts is the collection of all the instruments I designed, built and have been in constant development from the late 90s to today. One such exhibition will be happening from June to September this year (2023) at the Afrika Museum in The Netherlands. The Toha is in fact two harps in one, around a central column that holds the tuning system and strings. It is intended to be played by two musicians although it can be played solo.  

✿ What elements of the traditional harp are contained in it?

The initial design was really an exploration of form and design, trying to come close to its conceptual domain, the bundle nest of sociable weaver birds around a electricity pole in the desert of Namib, not particularly associated with any traditional instrument. In later developments, it became more closely similar to a hybrid between a harp where the strings pull from the soundboard and a guzheng where the strings go over bridges that are loose atop a curved resonator and can be adjusted for fine-tuning.

✿ You designed it on 3D software, right?

It started with a sketch on paper to come to the original design.  The first version was built with a bamboo guadua central column, two resonators, one at the base of the instrument and a middle one. Around the central column, 21 strings are stretched over bridges on top of the middle resonator and attached to the bottom resonator. The following versions were designed in CAD, where each component has its own digital file so that they can be produced using different fabrication techniques such as CNC, laser cutting or 3-D printing. I intended to redesign the Toha in order to increase the number of strings from 21 to 44. The 44-string harp allows for two sections of three octaves each in a diatonic scale. The new harp’s tuning system was optimised by using piano tuning pins and bridges made of hard nylon through a process of Rapid Prototyping called Laser Sinthering Stereolitography. 

They act as lever tuners strengthening the tuning system and providing the possibility of changing tones rapidly by sliding through the surface of the middle resonator. The central column was built in solid wood mahogany. The bottom resonator was built in carbon fibre. Designing the instrument digitally meant that by the time it was built as a physical object, it carried a second existence of itself, a virtual instrument, its digital counterpart. I realized that I was facing an inversion of the digitalization that had happened in the late 70s and throughout the 80s when practically any physical instrument was digitalized and turned into a virtual instrument, either by sampling or by synthesis resulting in sound libraries that can be used to produce music without the actual physical instruments. What emerges from the inversion of the dematerialization process, by designing the instrument using a digital workshop and then building it physically is an instrument that now has two existences. One in the digital world, where it was created, as a sound library, a virtual instrument, a 3D model and other digital parameters, and its double in the physical world, as an instrument that can be played and used in live performance. The toha and other instruments in the instrmnts collection like the acrux, are ”born digital” physical instruments that are free from the finite, fixed design paradigm as their originating parameters can be altered. Twenty years later the toha is in its fifth version.

Workshop with Instrmnts by Victor Gama at the Museu Nacional de Antropologia. Luanda, 2014-09-05. Photo: Joost De Raeymaeker/All Rights Reserved

✿ Who physically made the Toha?

I made the first version by hand, in the following versions several components have been made by machining suppliers with whom I have built a strong partnership for the last twenty years. The assembly of those components takes place at PangeiArt’s workshop, the company I founded in the early 2000s. 

✿ What’s surprised you the most about how it has been used?

The toha has been an important part of the interactive exhibition INSTRMNTS where visitors are invited to play it along with all the other instruments.

INSTRMNTS provides a space for display, performance and free experimentation, in which visitors can take part in a range of activities such as workshops, and guided tours and attend concerts where the toha is one of the main instruments is played.

Besides the exhibition, which in the last 25 years has been installed at many museums, galleries, festivals on three continents the most important for me have been the performances and music I’ve written for toha, and other instruments like the acrux, dino and in some pieces, ensembles from local orchestras. A piece in three movements written exclusively for the Kronos Quartet premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2010 where the quartet actually played the toha and acrux along with their own instruments. Another piece for toha, acrux, dino and an ensemble of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered at Harris Theater for their Music Now festival and has been stage several times since then. The opera 3 thousand Rivers premiered in Lisbon and Bogotá and a prelude of Aisa Tana – The Book of Winds had its first show at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. invited by Mason Bates and conducted by Edwin Outwater. The solo/duo concert ‘tectonik.Tombwa – pieces for acrux and toha’ has been touring since 2008 and this year will be staged in Koln, Nijmegen, Lisbon and Luanda. 

I’m always surprised how visitors to the exhibition come up with different ways of spontaneously playing the toha. In performance, the toha is definitely a surprise and especially when it’s played by two musicians, usually myself and the Portuguese harpist Salomé Pais Matos.

About Victor Gama

Victor Gama is a composer and designer of contemporary musical instruments for new music. He performs solo, with his trio or with ensembles playing his large pieces from small to big halls such as the Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall or Centro Cultural de Belém. He makes music for dance, film, theater and multimedia performances using his unique set of musical instruments as exclusive sound libraries. He’s been commissioned to compose for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/MusicNOW, the Kronos Quartet or the Prince Claus Fund and has created instruments for collections in museums such as the National Museums of Scotland. INSTRUMNTS, his award-winning interactive exhibition with workshops and concerts, has been installed at London’s Royal Opera House, Madrid’s Fundación Carlos D’Amberes, UK’s National Center for Design and Crafts and many more. Visit and follow @vict0rgama.

View also concert at Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington, Indiana, US. and A Diary of Antarctica here or here.

Like the article? Make it a conversation by leaving a comment below.  If you believe in supporting a platform for culture-makers, consider becoming a subscriber.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Maia Armandina says:

    I’ve been near the fabulous work of Vítor Gama for many years now. I’m very proud of the permanent search of any possibility of new purposals that I never dreamed of. Congratulations to the hole team. And thank you for the hard work.

  • Songül says:

    I listened to a great musical instrument in the video…