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An Introduction to African Instruments

African instruments have existed in Africa since pre-historical times but African music isn’t just an ‘add-on’ to life as one might see in the western world, rather it is an inherent part of their social structure and life itself. Because the written word was virtually non-existent until the period of colonial development, music and song was used as a means of recording history that could be passed on from one generation to another.

Rhythm almost certainly originated in the area that we now know as Africa. To the ear trained musically within Africa, almost all modern, non-African music can be heard to contain variations of African rhythms. The instruments used to express this music have developed over thousands of years and essentially fall into one of five instrumental groups; drums, strings, shakers, bells or other percussion instruments. Here are some examples of some of the most widely-used African instruments.


Originating from the area of Guinea, West Africa, the djembe is a hand held drum that is played by one person, almost exclusively with just with the bare hands. Usually up to three feet tall. The playing head is usually fourteen inches across. The shell is made of a hardwood such as ‘lenge’ or ‘harre’ and the shaved skin of a goad is stretched over the head of the drum, using an arrangement of metal rings and chord to tighten the skin. A master drummer (djembefola) can produce over 36 different sounds from the djembe, just using his hands. It is usually played within a group of drummers and each djembe is tuned and sized for a particular tone.


Originating from West Africa (and now played almost exclusively within that region), the kora is a 21 string bridged harp (but the number of strings varies between regions). 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 guitar. With a sound that resembles that of a harp, the kora is played using the hands, playing bass notes with the left hand and the accompanying melody with the right hand.


Throughout Africa there is a tree with a seed pod that makes an excellent shaker in its natural form and it was probably this form of shaker which was used since rhythm began. It is said that shakers add the ‘spice’ to African music and they have developed over the years although the use of natural materials is still the norm. In West Africa an extremely common and popular shaker called a ‘shekere’ is a made from a dried gourd with beads woven into a net covering the gourd. Throughout the African continent there are similar gourd and bead or gourd and seed percussion instruments.

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