Musical Instruments

Wall paintings in ancient Egyptian tombs show that the people of Africa have made and played musical instruments for thousands of years. Over the centuries, the many invaders of Africa introduced new instruments. Arabs brought musical instruments and styles that became part of the culture of North Africa, the western savanna, and the eastern coast. European colonial armies and missionaries introduced Western instruments such as brass horns. Urban musicians of modern Africa have adopted Western electric instruments—guitar, bass, and synthesizer—to create exciting new music.

Yet from the dance halls to the rural farmlands, many musicians still play the traditional instruments of Africa. Some of these instruments are unique to Africa, although they are related to instruments used elsewhere in the world. Their sounds—ancient and deeply rooted in the land—help create the distinctive qualities of African music.

Africa: Musical Instruments


Most traditional musicians fashion their own instruments. The types of instruments they make—and the sounds produced—depend on the materials available. A person setting out to make an instrument draws on a wealth of knowledge about the properties of local materials. Wood determines the sound qualities of many instruments. In central and southern Africa, musicians favor kiaat or sneezewood, which produce a rich, resonant sound. A xylophone made in southern Mozambique is an environmental masterpiece that uses at least 15 natural materials, including gourds, beeswax, palm leaf, and rubber. Africans have developed great skill in creating special sounds and textures by adding assorted objects—from seed pods to bottle caps—to their instruments.

A key feature of African music is that when instruments are played together, each is supposed to be heard separately. Musicians in a group usually value contrast more than the blending of sounds. They choose and tune their instruments carefully so that each has its own recognizable voice contributing to a sort of musical conversation or storytelling. Musicians in sub-Saharan Africa frequently increase their instruments’ contrast and texture by adding buzzing devices to the instruments.

Buzzers can be made of many materials, including loosely attached metal rings, bells, shells, beads, seeds, string, grass, or bottle tops. Some buzzers, called mirlitons, consist of membranes that vibrate when air moves through an instrument. For example, when a player strikes a xylophone made of gourds, the gourds vibrate and push air against the membrane, which makes a buzzing or humming sound. Africans have made mirlitons from countless materials, including cow intestines, spider egg sacs, carbon paper, and plastic bags.


African musical instruments can be groups into several large families according to the part of the instrument that vibrates to make sound. These include aerophones—wind instruments; chordophones—stringed instruments; membranophones—drums; and idiophones, which produce sound when the instrument’s body or part of it vibrates.

Aerophones are basically tubes. The player blows into or across a hole in the tube to produce the sound. Across the continent, people play simple pipes that produce only one note. When playing in a group, each player inserts his or her note into the total pattern at the right moment. African musicians also use panpipes, several pipes fastened together to give the player a choice of several notes.

In North Africa and regions of Arab influence, some musicians play aerophones with vibrating reeds in the mouthpieces, similar to the oboes and clarinets of the West. Examples include the North African
shawn, an ancestor of the modern oboe; the Tunisian mezonad, a version of the bagpipe; and the Egyptian arghul, a type of double clarinet.

Chordophones produce sounds when strings are plucked or strummed. The harps that people play in much of Africa sometimes show a remarkable resemblance to ancient Egyptian harps. Ethiopia and other eastern African countries have long favored the lyre, an ancient instrument with a skin-covered body, two necks, and strings that stretch from the bottom of the body to the ends of the necks. A related instrument, the lute, has only one neck. The lute player may pluck the strings or rub them with a bow. Bowed lutes are widely used in North African and Arab music, as are the rahab, a type of fiddle, and the oud, a wooden lute as popular in Arab music as the guitar in Western music.

The most magnificent of all African chordophones may be the kora of Guinea and neighboring countries. A large round gourd forms the body, covered in skin, and at least 21 strings stretch down from a tall wooden neck across the body. It is held upright by a seated musician. The kora is the instrument of choice of the griots, professional musicians and storytellers whose long history began in the royal courts of West African chiefs, kings, and emperors.

Struck with hands or sticks, the sounds of drums resonate almost everywhere in Africa. Drummers in western Africa have developed the greatest varieties and specialties of membranophones. Though they come in an enormous range of shapes and sizes, drums are of two main types—closed and open. In closed drums, the airspace within the drum is completely sealed. The drum may have one membrane that the player strikes, or it may have membranes on top and bottom. Open drums have only one membrane and are not completely enclosed. Closed drums have a clearer musical pitch but little variety of sound, while open drums make more sounds possible. The sound of each drum is affected by the shape and materials of the drum body. Tambourines are also membranophones.

African musicians have a long tradition of inventing and making small handheld idiophones such as rattles and bells. Xylophones are also idiophones. They consist of a row of wooden slats mounted on a frame and tuned to produce various notes when struck. Sometimes the maker adds hollow bodies such as gourds to amplify the sounds of the slats or buzzing devices for added textures. Some African xylophones require as many as four players.

The mbira is a wooden soundboard with a row of several narrow metal keys mounted on it. A bar fixes one end of the keys to the board, while a bridge raises the other end. The player plucks the ends of the keys with thumbs or fingers. From South Africa to Uganda to Sierra Leone, more than 200 types of mbira exist. People often play the mbira casually, in public or alone, while walking, at parties, or simply to pass the time. In Zimbabwe and the valley of the Zambezi River, however, the mbira is played at all-night religious ceremonies involving ancestral spirits. This ancient instrument may have originated in that region, but today it joins the African musical tradition across a large part of the continent. (See also Dance, Music and Song, Theater.)