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African Instruments

In the pre-colonial period, trade, wars, migrations, and religion stimulated interaction
among sub-Saharan societies, encouraging them to borrow musical resources from one
another, including peoples exposed to Islamic and Arabic culture, who had integrated
some Arabic instruments and techniques into their traditional music. Some usages
became concentrated in particular culture areas, whereas others were widely distributed.
Thus, the savanna belt of West Africa forms a music area distinct from the Guinea Coast
because of its virtuosic instrumental styles and the presence of a class of professional
praise singers, or griots, in that area. Similarly, the music of East Africa is distinguished
from that of Central Africa by a number of instruments, and from that of southern Africa,
which traditionally emphasizes certain kinds of choral organization and complex forms of
musical bows.

The musical instruments of sub-Saharan Africa include a wide variety of resonant solids
(idiophones) such as rattles, bells, stamping tubes, the mbira (thumb piano), and the
xylophone. Parchment-head drums (membranophones) are found in many forms, such
as goblet drums; kettledrums; cylindrical, semicylindrical, and barrel-shaped drums; and
hourglass drums with variable-tension heads. Among wind instruments (aerophones) are
flutes made of bamboo, millet, reed, or the tips of animal horns and gourds; ocarinas;
panpipes; horns (made from elephant tusks or animal horns) and trumpets (made of
wood, sections of gourd, or metal tubes); single-reed pipes made from millet stalks; and
double-reed pipes adopted from Arabic culture. Stringed instruments (chordophones)
include musical bows, zithers, bowed and plucked lutes, harp-lutes, arched harps, and
lyres. Body percussion is also exploited, the most common being handclapping and foot

In selecting any instrument for music making or communication, consideration is given

to its melodic and rhythmic capacities, its evocative or dramatic power, or its symbolic
references. The tuning systems, scales, and rhythms associated with instruments tend to
be more complex than those of songs. Rhythm patterns in one line or several
simultaneous lines may interlock, overlap, or form polyrhythmic structures. Such
structures may utilize cross-rhythms or alternate double and triple rhythms in linear

Drums are among the more popular African instruments, but other important percussion
instruments include clap-sticks, bells, rattles, slit gongs, struck gourds and clay pots,
stamping tubes, and xylophones. African stringed instruments include the musical bow,
lute, lyre, harp, and zither. The flute, whistle, oboe, and trumpet are among the African
wind instruments.

The djembe is a West African drum that is believed to have come from the Malinke
people in the Northeast of Guinea. The djembe migrated to the Mali empire in the 9th
Century and is now found in Senegal and Ivory Coast. Covered in goat skin, the djembe's
sharp bright sound and dynamic range of colours made it an ideal drum for healers, and
storytellers, as well as accompanying dance, or for communicating between villages. The
djembe has become the most popular African drum to be played outside of Africa, yet it
is a very demanding instrument and there are few musicians who play it well.

Country: Senegal / Ghana

Region: West Africa
Type: percussion
A kora is built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a
resonator, and has a notched bridge like a lute or guitar. The sound of a kora resembles
that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style, it bears a closer resemblance to
flamenco guitar techniques. The player uses only the thumb and index finger of both
hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns (using the remaining fingers to hold
the sticks either side of the strings and secure the instrument). Ostinato riffs ("Kumbeng")
and improvised solo runs ("Biriminting") are played at the same time by skilled players.

Kora players have traditionally come from griot families (also from the mandinka tribes)
who are traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to
their descendants. The instrument is played in Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and The Gambia. A
traditional kora player is called a Jali, similar to a 'bard' or oral historian.

Traditional koras feature 21 strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right.
Modern koras made in the Casamance region of southern Senegal sometimes feature
additional bass strings, adding up to four strings to the traditional 21. Strings were
traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example antelope skin - now most strings
are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create
thicker strings. Wood-burned designs are sometimes on the back of the kora

By moving leather tuning rings up and down the neck, a kora player can retune the
instrument into one of four seven-note scales. These scales are close in tuning to western
Major, Minor and Lydian modes.

The shakere is a handheld percussion instrument made from a hollowed out dried gourd,
covered with beads or seeds and covered with brightly colored string--from Ghana and
Nigeria. It is not necessarily shaken - the beaded area rests in the palm of one hand while
the other hand twists the gourd, making a swishing sound. The shakere can be played
with both hands or with one hand. The crisp sound that comes from these shakers is a
wonderful compliment to a traditional African drum ensemble. The seed color and shape
of the gourd will vary.

The calabash or gourd (as it's commonly known in the United States) is a functional
creation of nature with a wide variety of uses and traditions in cultures around the world.
A fruit of varied shape and size, it commonly grows on a vine not unlike the squash, but
there are also varieties that grow on bushes and trees. In so-called "third world" countries
the calabash was historically used as a container for water, and still is an essential utensil
in many parts of the world. In rural areas of the U.S., they are often used as birdhouses.
Throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean and the Americas, gourds are
used as resonators for musical instruments.

"Shekere" is a general name to describe the beaded gourd rattle. It comes in many shapes
and sizes, is played in a variety of styles, and has many different names. In Africa it is
found primarily, but not exclusively, in the countries of Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Benin,
Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire (there are many parts of Africa where you will not hear
this instrument). Different language groups in each country often have their own names,
styles, techniques, and traditions associated with the shekere.

In Nigeria, the very large beaded calabash is called an "agbe", and traditionally is owned
and played only by professional musicians (Olatunji, Music in African Life). It is a
personal instrument and never loaned of shared, even with family members. However, a
son who is a professional musician may inherit his father's agbe. Shekeres among the
Yeruba of Nigeria are often connected with religion, given great respect, and play a very
important role in certain traditional musical forms.

Throughout West Africa you will also a smaller gourd, covered with a woven net which is
tied off at the bottom, leaving a tail of loose strings. In Ghana and Togo among the Ewe
language group it is known as the "axatse" and is often used to accompany a drum or bell
orchestra on important occasions. In Sierra Leone you will find a similar type of shekere
with a very loose net and long tail, often called a "shake-shake" or "shaburay".
When African slaves were taken to the "New World," they carried with them many of
these rich musical traditions, which took root in varying degrees in different parts of the
Americas and the Caribbean. In Cuba, Youruba religious traditions using drums and
shekeres are found almost completely intact - with similar rhythmic patterns, names of
instruments and accompanying chants. Brazilians sometimes use a beaded (with seeds)
coconut called "afuxe" similar in name and style to the Ghanian "axatse". In the United
States the shekere and other African related instruments continue to grown in popularity
and are rapidly becoming part of our contemporary musical expression.


The marimba is a musical instrument in the percussion family with musical tones. It
belongs to a kind of xylophone.

On a marimba, there are wooden bars called "sound boards" ranged like a piano
keyboard, and there are metal tubes, or resonators, beneath them. The tender sound of
wood that reverberates well and the profound sound of the low keys are the features of
the marimba. At the most, the marimba can be played using 6 mallets.
Musical Bow – Berimbau
also “mouth guitar”

The Musical Bow, or Berimbau, is the oldest and simplest type of chordophone. It
consists of a string attached to the ends of a bowed stick. The Musical Bow is believed to
have originated in Africa. African people still use the musical bow in ritual folk music.
When Africans were forced to the Caribbean islands as slaves, they brought their culture
with them. The simple construction of the musical bow allows it to be fabricated easily.
The musical bow is still played in the Caribbean islands.

The musical bow is approximately 47" long. With practice you can achieve 2 octaves.

Without the resonator you might mistake this musical instrument for the tool it closely
resembles and is named after, the bow and Arrow. The “arrow” is a shorten stick, or
plectrum. Attached to the “string” or the “bow” may or may not be a resonator. The
resonator amplifies the sound. Holding the gourd resonator against your chest, you strike
the string with a stick or bow, while pressing coins, rocks or other objects against the
string with the other hand to change its pitch. Shells or metal pieces are sometimes tied to
the string to create a buzzing sound quality.

Mbira (Thumb piano) or Kalimba

The mbira is the classic instrument of Zimbabwe, with an entire musical genre developed
around it. It consists of approximately 20-24 flattened metal prongs which are fastened at
one end to a wooden resonator body (usually some sort of box shape). The mbira sits in a
calabash (gourd) which acts as it's resonator. The free ends of the metal prongs are
plucked with the thumb of the left hand and the thumb and index finger of the right hand.
The most important feature of mbira music is its chiming, cyclical nature, with each new
repetition varying slightly from the last.
6 yr old djembe player

djembe player (smiles)

Map of Africa

Nadishana @ Airvault'09 - Solo on Ghost Catcher

mrimba and turtle shell