Let’s Yabara to the Beat!Traditionally, only those musical instruments that were created by trained craftsmen were used in performances that took place in front of large groups, political figures, or in important ceremonies. These instruments were aesthetically decorated based on the belief that this would improve the quality of their sound. Each of them is a beautiful piece of art. The musicians too, who played them, were multi-instumentalists.Music has always held a position of utmost importance in African culture. Traditional African music has had a major hand in shaping the history of world music. In fact, when the first slaves were brought to the United States of America, their African music influenced, inspired, and gave rise to groundbreaking genres of music such as jazz and blues. This also led to the evolution of new and upcoming genres of music like soul.
The culture of African music is quite diverse in nature. In fact, each region has its own distinctive flavor. Music was a communal tradition which was both developed and indulged in by common people as part of their lifestyle. A noteworthy fact about traditional African music is that, it was passed across generations not by written record but rather through aural (oral) tradition. It involved storytelling, singing (simple as well as complex techniques), clapping or stamping, dance, and the use of a number of instruments (some as elementary as rattles or shakers, and other significant ones like percussion, wind, or string instruments). Sneak a quick peek with us into the various instruments that were used in traditional African music.Percussion InstrumentsDrumsDrums were remarkably significant in African musical culture. According to tradition, beating the drum served more than one purpose. Some were used to announce matters of importance such as birth and death, while others were used to usher in the arrival of persons of political importance. They were only to be played in their presence. Long-distance communication, celebrations, and ceremonies were the other areas they were used in. We present to you a list of noteworthy African drums that this continent takes pride in.Talking Drum♦ It has a sort of hourglass-shaped torso and is slung over one shoulder, held under the other arm, and beaten with a bent stick.
♦ It can be squeezed to change its pitch.
♦ The name “talking drum” was conferred on this drum because it was used to communicate coded messages over long distances.
♦ Its origins can be traced back to the Ghana empire, though it was associated with West Africa (Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and other African nations).Djembe♦ The Djembe is a precursor to the goblet drum. It has a membrane made of stretched goat hide and a base of carved wood.
♦ A communal instrument, it was played to signify the coming together of people in events such as weddings.
♦ Its origins can be traced back to the Mandinka tribe of Mali, all the way back to the 12th century. However, it has withstood the test of time, and is one of the most popular musical instruments that Africa is associated with.Batá♦Originally from the Yorùbá region of Nigeria, Batá drums also have a cultural significance in Cuba, and are widely used in Cuban music. However, it was the African slaves who introduced them to this region.
♦ In Africa, believed to be the sacred drums of the Goddess of Love, Aña, only kings were said to own and play them.
♦ A set of three drums, each, with an hourglass shape, it is carved out of solid wood and has goatskin membranes. It is played by placing it across the lap, either with sticks or by hand. It has two heads, of which, one is larger. It can be played.Bougarabou♦ Traditionally played as a single instrument (as opposed to in a set) in the standing position, the Bouragabou can be played by hand or with a stick. Jangling bracelets were traditionally worn by the person playing these drums.
♦ It originated in Senegal, Gambia, and was associated with the culture of the Jóola people and other nearby regions of West Africa.
♦ Goblet-shaped with a cowskin membrane but more tapering than the Djembe, it can only be played from one end.Ngoma♦ With origins in Uganda, the Ngoma, whose name is derived from the konga, a word for drum, was popular in Central, East, and South Africa. It was held in such high esteem by the Baganda tribe of Uganda that these people were considered to be the ‘children of Ngoma’.
♦ These drums were played on almost every occasion, be it a celebration or communicating an important message. It was also considered a symbol of authority.
♦ It is made of wood and has membranes on both ends made of goatskin or even zebra skin in some regions. It is, generally, played in a set of four or sometimes seven drums.Bara/Bendré♦ These drums are spherical in shape and are made from dried gourd that is cut open on one end. A stretched membrane of goatskin covers the hollow and that is the only head of the drum.
♦ These drums originated in West Africa and gained popularity in Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Mali. They are, in fact, quite widely used even in recent, popular Malian music.
♦ They were traditionally played to accompany the balafon.ShakersAuxiliary percussion instruments like shakers and rattles played quite a vital role in traditional African music. They were used to create the important background rhythm in any song. They have been seen in many forms (varying with local tradition) from handheld shakers to calf bracelets, anklets, necklaces, or belts. Two noteworthy variants of shakers, that have withstood the test of time, are the Shekere and Cocoon rattles.Shekere♦ These shakers are made out of vine gourd or calabash, which is first dried and hollowed out, following which a woven net of shells is wrapped around it. Some of them are decorated with colorful beadwork.
♦ The size of the instrument varies depending on the size of the gourd, and at times, very large gourds are also used to make Shekeres sometimes.
♦ Although shakers are seen all over the country, the shekere was associated with West Africa and attributed to countries like Ghana and Nigeria.Cocoon Rattles♦ These percussion instruments were worn like anklets on the feet, by Zulu dancers in South Africa and Zimbabwe, to match the beat of the drums that they danced to, during sacred communal rituals.
♦ They are made by first carefully collecting cocoons over many months, drying them, filling them with sand or small stones, and then sewing them onto calfskins, in rows of three, in the form of bands.Other InstrumentsMbira (Thumb Piano)This particular instrument has a rich and fascinating history with origins that go back thousands of years to the Zambezi Valley. It was adopted by different African cultures and led to the development of a number of musical instruments including the kalimba. It was very popular with the Shona people of Zimbabwe; however, similar instruments were also played in other parts of East and South Africa.
The thumb piano or mbira is constructed by attaching two rows of staggered metal keys to a hardwood soundboard. It is often placed inside a gourd to generate better amplification. It is held in front of the player and played by pushing some keys with thumbs in one direction, while others are played with forefingers in the opposite direction. It was played during weddings and other ceremonies, as the Shona people considered this instrument to be a gift to human beings from the spirit world.Balafon (Xylophone)This percussion idiophone which starkly resembles the marimba, another similar instrument that is associated with South African culture, is similar to a wooden xylophone. It has a long-standing history that goes back to the rise of the Mali Empire in the 12th century. It is popular in parts of West Africa like Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, and Côte d’Ivoire. It is still relevant even today.
It is constructed by hitting a set of tuned wooden keys with a mallet or paddles. There are two kinds of balafons―fixed-key balafons with the keys strung to an immovable frame, and free-key balafons that have independent keys. However, fixed-key balafons have resonators made of calabash placed underneath them. Each wooden key is tuned by first drying the wood, and then, slowly, shaving off bits from its underside.
In some parts of Africa, it was played as a standalone instrument, and in others, it was played along with other percussion instruments. Players sometimes wore belled bracelets to accentuate the sound.Kora (Stringed Instrument)A true example of ingenuity, the kora is a sort of double-bridged harp-lute. It is a trademark of storytellers who used to carry it along with them. One of the legends associated with the origins of this instrument is: it was found by a hunter against a tree, and he was taught how to play it by a spirit. This instrument has been a part of a number of West African cultures, including that of Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia.
It is traditionally constructed using a dried and hollowed gourd or calabash, which is cut into half. The open face is covered with goatskin or cowhide to make a resonator, and a long neck made of African rosewood is attached to one end. It has 21 strings, and is played using the thumb and forefinger. Its sound resembles a harp or a flamenco guitar.Wind InstrumentsWind instruments are not so dominant in the musical culture of Africa, but a few instruments did leave their stamp on the historical timeline of this continent. Two of them are: the algaita and the ivory horn.
♦ It is a wind instrument with a double reed, which, in spite of having similarities to the oboe, stands apart. This is because it contains a trumpet-like bell as an addition.
♦ It has finger holes instead of keys, and has a wide opening at the bottom.
♦ It was very popular in West Africa, especially amongst the Kanuri and Hausa people who resided in Northern Nigeria and South-Eastern Niger.
♦ With a body made from elephant tusk, the ivory horn has two holes―one at the mouthpiece end and another for tone. When it is played, its pitch is controlled with the help of certain techniques of lip vibration.
♦ Originally a sign of prestige, it was once used as a hunting horn. Later on, it was played in ceremonies.
♦ It was popular in many regions of West Africa such as Nigeria and Ghana.We hope, this glimpse into the rich tradition of African musical instruments, has been just as intriguing to you as it has been to us. Many of these instruments have been preserved in various museums all over the world. If you do have the time, don’t miss an opportunity to visit some of them.