What is the standard tuning for an 8-string Nyatiti? I've tried searching in Google but haven't found anything. I wonder if there are different tunings in different regions.
On following site: (link), at the end are some standard tunings. Short answer I know, but it should be sufficient. :) If you're to lazy to go there and check for yourself, the basic one is: C, Bb, A, F, F, Eb, C, Bb (The 5th is an octave higher than the 4th; The 1st and the 7th are on the same pitch just like the 2nd and the 8th)
It depends on the player, though the tunings are mostly based on major or minor pentatonics. I tune (from top to bottem) B A G E E D B A, though some tune it up or down depending on their singing range and many will opt for a major tuning using G# instead of G.
The middle E and E are an octave apart from one another, with the top E being lower.
Some of the old guys would tune the bottom A or B slightly off pitch with the top to create an odd discordant effect.
To answer the latter portion of the question "I wonder if there are different tunings in different regions," the nyatiti does not have a wide regional distribution. It was only limited to Siaya (in the Nyanza region along Lake Victoria), and within Siaya only the two areas of Alego and to a lesser extent Ugenya. While the players in Alega and Ugenya are slightly different in style, the tuning does not vary so much between regions but rather between players.
Most players stick to the general tuning mentioned here, but will tune it up or down depending on their vocal range. Moreover, some player are more attentive to keeping an accurate tuning than others, I have seen some that are wholly lax (not a negative) in keeping the instrument in tuning, presumably because they view it as a rhythmic rather than a melodic instrument.
This is similar to the (either cousin or predecessor of the nyatiti) obokano of the neighboring Kisii, where the strings are so loose that precise tuning is difficult and the tones so low that it doesn't make much of a difference anyway. In fact, old nyatiti recordings sound much like the obokano, having a more rhythmic rather than melodic feel.
I have seen guys who tune them without electronic tuners that hit an E major spot on (I checked with a tuner just because I was curious) and others who just pick up the instrument and start playing no matter what condition it is in.
The Nairobi players mostly tune with electronic tuners at some point. Some more progressive players will experiment with different types of scales (which is awesome).
It must be said that though the basic tuning does not vary much, the key does (as I mentioned before) and the change of key radically changes the way the instrument behaves. Even moving from an E to an F or down to a D give very different tonal results, almost changing the sound completely. The nyatiti is a sensitive instrument since the strings resonate the entire time one is playing, so even small changes can make a huge difference in the overall sound, in my experience.