African Musical Instruments

African Musical Instruments

Africa probably has the largest variety of drums to be found in any continent, but virtually every other type of musical instrument is also represented throughout Africa.

Some distinctively African instruments, however, are unique to the continent. Of the drums, the most characteristically African are those known as “talking drums” because they can reproduce the tonal inflections and rhythms of African languages. Their musical potential is also fully realized. The western African hourglass drum is the most versatile talking drum. Squeezing the lacing between the two heads produces PITCH that can vary more than an octave. Another is the slit drum, made from a hollowed log on which two tones are produced by striking on either side of a longitudinal slot.

Varieties of drums are found in every African community and corner of the continent. Some of the well known African drums constitute-

  • Djembe: Played by bare hands, the Djembes are drums which are covered by animal skins. Ropes are used for tuning the drums. The body is carved from hardwood and is capable of producing diverse sounds. Traditionally, only men are allowed to play the Djembe.
  • Bougarabou: This West African drum set is shaped like an elongated goblet. Bougarabou is generally played in groups of four or five usually with one hand and a stick. These are capable of producing large sounds which can be heard over a distance.
  • Gudugudu: It is the traditional instrument of the Yoruba people. Its bowl shaped structure makes it popular for playing danceable music.
  • Ashiko: The shape of Ashiko is like a truncated cone and is played by hands only. Similar to the Djembe, only three primary tones, slap, bass and tone. These drums are also a part of the Yoruba people which are from Nigeria.
  • Slit drum: It is a hollow instrument made of wood and has slits in it which allows the air to resonate when sticks are hammered over them. The correct size of slit is responsible for the appropriate pitches of sound.

Of the myriad types of rattle, the western African net rattle, made of a handle gourd encased in a beaded net, is unique. The Yoruba shekere of Nigeria has a tight net, and the loose net on the Mende shegbule of Sierra Leone is held taut by the player. Because of the external beads, precise rhythms can be played on both these versions of the net rattle.

Xylophones, widespread in Africa, are of two basic types. The frame xylophone, such as those played by the MANDE and Lobi of West Africa, the FANG of Cameroon, and the Chopi of Mozambique, has gourd resonators hung beneath each key. The loose-key xylophone, such as the Ganda amadinda of Uganda, is left unassembled when not in use; when played, the keys are laid across two banana stems. The balafon is found through out Guinea, Mali and Cote De Ivory (Ivory Coast).

As widespread as the xylophone, and unique to African and African-derived cultures, is the mbira or thumb piano, which consists of flat iron strips mounted on a board or box with one end of each strip left free to be plucked by the thumbs or thumbs and forefingers.

The simplest of the many stringed instruments found throughout Africa is the musical BOW, resonated with a gourd or with the mouth of the player. ZITHERs and HARPs are common in eastern and central Africa, and the LYRE, which has a hemispherical or rectangular body and two arms extending to a crossbar where the strings are attached, is played in Ethiopia and Uganda. In western Africa the most common stringed instrument is the skin-covered LUTE, either boat-shaped with two to five plucked strings or hemispherical with one bowed string.

Three stringed instruments unique to Africa are the bridge harp (or harp lute), the harp zither, and the bow lute. The best-known form of the bridge harp is the 21-string Manding kora of western Africa. It is held facing the player, who plucks two planes of strings mounted in notches on either side of a high bridge. The harp zither, best known as the Fang mvet of Cameroon, also has a notched bridge that is mounted in the center of its long tubular body. The bow lute, such as the Bambara ndang, is plucked and has an individual curved neck for each string.

The flutes of Africa are of every type except the RECORDER. In eastern, central, and southern Africa, groups of musicians play sets of single-note vertical pipes, each person contributing a single note to create a complex polyphonic texture. Panpipes are also played in this area. Of the various reed instruments of Africa, the most notable is the Hausa algaita of Nigeria, a short conical-bore double reed. African trumpets include the kakaki, a straight herald trumpet of tin associated with Hausa aristocracy, but the most typical African trumpets are made of natural animal horns, ivory, or hollowed wood and are played in sets in the same manner as the single-note vertical pipes.

Akonting: Popular as the ancestors of banjo, akonting are primarily found in Senegal and West Africa. It comprises of two melody string, one drone string and a fifth thumb string which helps to create bass.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: