African musical instruments

Performing music and making African musical instruments is an integral part of most communities and it varies not only from country to country but from village to village.

Sanza mbira Sanza mbira, Congo
African musical instruments, Tervuren

There are common features though and much like the other forms of African art, most traditional African music is more than just aesthetic expression. It permeates African life and has a function, a role to play in society; songs are used for religious ceremonies and rituals, to teach and give guidance, to tell stories, to mark the stages of life and death and to provide political guidance or express discontent.

It also serves to entertain and is used in ceremonial festivals and masquerades to work up fervour from the spectators and participants alike. Singing, dancing and playing African musical instruments ensure a dynamic event transpires.

Fulani flute Fulani flute
Saharan vibe blog

The impact of the music is tantamount, the beauty of it, just like African sculpture, is secondary to the primary function. Performances may be long and often involve the participation of the audience. Much of it is associated with a particular dance.

There are some African musical instruments that cross boundaries and are found in varying shapes in the different countries but still have the same basic form. Some instruments have changed very little in 800 years since they were first recorded.

Africans have strong beliefs about the status associated with particular instruments and with the spirit of an instrument. The carver of the instrument, especially true with drums, is held in high regard.

African Musical instruments

Anthromorphic harp Anthromorphic harp
Tervuren museum

The following are some of the African musical instruments used throughout the continent, primarily Sub-Saharan...

  • Membranophones (Drums):
    cylindrical, semi-cylindrical, barrel, hourglass, pressure, goblet, kettle, clay-pot
    Djembe, West Africa
  • Chordophones (Stringed instruments):
    harps (koras), musical bows, fiddles, lyres, zithers, lutes
  • Aerophones (Wind instruments):
    flutes: bamboo, millet, reed, animal horn tips, gourds
    trumpets: wood, gourd, metal tubes pipes; single, double reed, panpipes
    horns: tusks and animal horns
  • Idiophones (Resonant solids):
    mbira, xylophone and lamellophone rattles and shakers: gourds, woven, wooden, stick
    bells: ankle, cluster, double, single, pod, tubular, clapperless
  • Percussion:
    rainsticks, woodsticks, clapsticks bells, rattles, slit gongs, struck gourds and claypots, stamping tubes
    body: foot stamping and hand clapping
  • African musical instruments also serve as works of art, carved into surprising shapes, covered with patterns and decorated with beads, feathers, paint or cloth. Figures are sculpted into the instrument as spiritual tokens empowering the musician to filter the godly or ancestral messages.

    Saharan 'green' cultures left a legacy of rock art describing some are the earliest scenes of African music such as in the painting below.

    Tassili-n-Ajjer Rock painting of a dance performance
    Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, 6000-4000 BC

    It is probably one of the oldest existing testimonies to music and dance in Africa and is attributed to the 'Saharan' period of the Neolithic hunters.

    Traditionally, African musicians were not concerned with the impact of the music, nor its 'beauty', it had a specific function with dance being an integral partner to music and was used to entertain as well as to mark occasions and provide moral guidance.

    African singers use a large number of sounds, not all of them appealing to the ear; some are confronting or emotionally and spiritually charged. Singing style can be loud and resonant but can also be constricted and accompanying sounds can be added.

    African traditions also emphasize dance and all the mime and props that go with it because movement is a significant form of communication. Body percussion; clapping and foot stamping is also utilized.

    African Music History

    From the 15th C onwards, our history of music making in Africa is mainly derived from studying representations of dances and making music with African musical instruments and scenes depicted in terracotta, stone or metal.

    In Ife, Yorubaland we see footed cylindrical drums dating from the 10th to 14th century on terracotta artefacts.

    In Benin, pressure drums appear on brass plaques from the 15th C onwards. These plaques have proven to be a never-ending supply of information on the use of instruments like horns, bells, drums and bow lutes in ceremonial occasions.

    In real form, the iron bells excavated in Katanga province, Congo and the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe are some of the earliest actual African musical instruments found, also dating around mid/late 15th C.

    Kalangba xylophone Kalangba xylophone
    Tervuren museum

    Migrations of tribes, movement of slaves and colonial porters and servants have all contributed to the wide dispersement of African musical instruments.

    For example, lamellaphones with metal keys were a prominent feature in ancient Zimbabwe and spread through neighbouring kingdoms to Katanga and Angolan cultures, all the while becoming smaller and smaller for travelling purposes.

    Zimbabwean 'mbiras' (lamellaphone) and 'ngomas' (drums) were first written about by Father Joao dos Santos, a Portuguese who travelled through the lower Zambezi in 1586 and recorded his impressions of the sounds these instruments made and the effects they had on their combined audience.

    Historically, Africa has contributed hugely to music-making in many other areas of the world most notably the Americas and most significantly in genres such as jazz, rock and roll, blues, salsa and samba. Music once considered "primitive" by Westerners is now highly respected for its rhythmic sophistication and complexity.

    African Music

    Singing is as basic a function as talking for most African people; mothers sing to their babies on their backs as they walk, work and dance, building an inherent sense of rhythm.

    Bakisimba dance Bakisimba dance, Saharan Vibe

    There are a great variety of sounds produced but generally singing is loud and resonant but it can also be shrill and piercing or it can include ululating, clicks and grunts.

    It can also be extremely melodious, using acapella and creating deeply harmonious songs.

    Personally, some years ago, I had the privilege to listen to an extraordinary group of performers from the Zambesi Valley in Zimbabwe: Tongas, whose haunting music blown from their horns and beaten off their drums made such amazing sounds that if I closed my eyes I could believe I was in New York or London hearing the very latest contemporary jazz.

    horn trumpet Dinka Tuich horn trumpet
    African musical instruments, Pitt River Museum

    If anyone has heard the ground hornbill calling to his mates in the African bush in the early mornings then you will know the sound of Africa and it is echoed in their fantastic evocative music.

    If anyone has watched an African woman hoeing in the field with a baby strapped tight to her back and the thud of her hoe is harmonised with the song she is singing while she toils, then this too is the resonance of Africa and is intrinsically lodged in their genetic memory.

    Contemporary African music is a huge industry with most countries supporting wonderful musicians who still use traditional African musical instruments but overlay them with contemporary rhythms and lyrics.

    Fela Kuti Fela Kuti, Nigeria, Saharan vibe

    This is a hugely exciting form of expression for modern day Africans and what they produce is loved and admired and danced to, the world over. African musicians represent the collective memory of their continent and their instruments reflect their history, their culture and their ancestry.

    Contemporary African Music

    Contemporary African music is immense in every respect and is possibly the most dynamic and vibrant form of cultural expression on the continent.

    Culture Musical Club Culture Musical Club, Zanzibar

    While being hugely creative, what is consistent throughout this huge continent is that it has become, like art, a vehicle with which all participants can make a social, political and sometimes spiritual comment.

    New forms are constantly being created in response to new social, economic and political contexts.

    Many African states have experienced very hard times in recent history and in the face of this, music has demonstrated itself to be a successful manifestation of emotion in the face of heartbreak and suffering. With poetry, dance and prayer the experience becomes a dual expression of inner freedom and possession, radiant happiness and anguish, loss and emotive expressiveness.

    World Music

    Contemporary African music is a huge industry with most countries supporting wonderful musicians who still use traditional African musical instruments like the kora (harp), djembe (drum) and mbira but overlay them with contemporary rhythms and lyrics. This has expanded to musical forms such as techno-funk and DJ culture that are way beyond their original context.

    Tribal techno-funk fuses world dance rhythms with centuries old instruments and melodies creating haunting, trance-like sounds that contemporary belly dancers like Sharon Kihara are using in their performances. Hip-hop has its own language in Africa, different from the Americas where it emerged. Congolese rumba takes on powerful rhythms and narratives just as contemporary art does in this country.

    Jimmy Omonga Jimmy Omonga (DRC)
    photo ©Bronwen Evans

    Wenge music, Congo - The aim of this music is to give Congolese subjects a form of release from their daily hardships. The force of this music compels the body to escape from itself, either by using the body itself, the buttocks and the hips swinging like a pendulum, or by simply listening to all the complexities the music presents; its rhythms, lyrics, tensions and melodies. Either way a state of serenity is achieved.

    Jimmy Omonga was born in Kinshasa, Congo and taught himself to play guitar, singing in a choir and writing his own songs by sixteen.

    He moved to Angola and then Cape Town where he combined his beautiful Congolese ballads with Afro-pop and the South African choir tradition. The catchy sounds produced were so original that he was labelled the 'Best Newcomer in World Music' by Beat Int, UK in 2008. He continues to astonish and delight both abroad and in Africa, playing at festivals like Sauti za Busara in Zanzibar.

    Another music festival that attracts large crowds and musicians to Africa is 'Festival au Desert' in Essekane, Mali.

    Below is Toubab Crewe, a band which fuses rock and roll and W African music blending Mali, and America's 'dirty south'. They are usually to be found in the blues and jazz clubs of New York.

    Toubab Crewe Toubab Crewe, Essekane, Mali, Saharan vibe



    New! Comments

    Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

    Are you an artist from Africa?

    Do you want to exhibit your work globally?

    You can do so right here and now by building a web page of your own within this web site.

    The cost? It's entirely free.

    Click here and you'll be 'live' in minutes.

    Do you have an African art gallery?

    Do you want to publicize your gallery and exhibit your work globally?

    You can do so right here and now by building a page in this website.

    It costs you nothing but a few minutes of your time.

    Click here and you'll be 'live' in minutes.