15 African instruments that will amaze you

African music is special and it has some unique musical instruments created for it. Learn about 15 top most unique ones.

The culture of Africa is many-sided and unique. It depends on regions and ethnos. In this regard, music of this continent is divided usually into two big geographical zones – the music of the North and traditional music inherent to the central, western and southern lands.There are many amazing musical instruments on the continent. Let's get 15 of them. 

15 African instruments

This division is connected with the fact that northern territories were under influence of Mediterranean people and Arabs. People from south had fewer contacts with the overseas countries. That’s why they have managed to keep a bigger individuality.

For everyone, who is interested in culture of this hot country, it is useful to learn about African musical instruments. They are also divided in north, east, west and South African instruments. Here is the list of the most popular of them:

  1. Jembe
    Jembe african drum
    Most often music of south culture is associated with Djembe or Jembe. This type of drum is an extended national African instrument. It reminds a cup or hourglasses with its form. Such African drum is made of a tree. It is asymmetrical. Lower part of Jembe is narrow and open. The top one is wide. It is closed by a leather membrane. The case is necessary decorated with carving or painting.

    This traditional instrument got world distribution after the 50th years of the last century. That time the Western world saw actors of Les Ballet Africans.

    Earlier this instrument was very important. It accompanied each African of the western region in all important vital events, such as the following rituals: national dances, treatment, military, campaigns and others.Now not only Africans play on Jembe. It has a wide popularity other musicians, regardless of the country. Such drum receives modern sounding with various drum sets. It is good both as the soloist and as a picturesque accompaniment.
  2. Mbira
    Mbira african instrument
    Mbira has arisen as a musical instrument of Shona nationality. Its tribes live on the territory of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Today mbira, or kalimba, is considered as the national Zimbabwe instrument. It is also widespread in many regions of South Africa. But in Zimbabwe it is possible to find the most skillful performers on a kalimba.

    Classical mbira consists of a massive wooden board, on which metal plates of various lengths are placed. Their amount depends on the region and the tribe. There is also kalimba with wooden plates. In the lower part of mbira, there is an opening. Africans play instrument with two hands. The sound is elicited by thumbs of both hands or by forefingers. Hollow pumpkin or tortoise shells are sometimes used as resonator. This instrument makes really unique sounding, which deserves the greatest praise.
  3. The Horn
    The Horn

    o make a musical instrument, it isn't necessary to work long and hard. It is possible to use, for example, horns of animals. Playing on such thing is very simple. It is enough to blow with force in it. The sound appears as a result of vibration of an air column in the case. The musician blows – a strong vibration arises, and you hear a music as a result.

    There are no accurate sizes of horn. It is quite natural as the sizes of horns and tusks differ too. The bigger is size of a horn, the bigger is the instrument size. The horn has a rich history. Since ancient times, musicians of Africa used a horn and tusks as musical instrument. It has been using for many centuries by different people of Africa. It remains popular till today. Everyone knows about existence of various tribes on the territory of the country. Many of them adhere to ancient traditions, which use a horn.
  4. Kora
    Kora is one of the most popular African music instruments. Vagrant singers, storytellers and keepers of legends traditionally play on it. These are mainly residents of Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia. Having reached high skill in game on bark, the master has to make an instrument for himself. Traditional Kora has 21 strings. Eleven of it are for the left hand and ten for the right. Earlier the strings were produced of thin strips of antelope or other animal leather. Now strings are made of nylon.

    Kora is made of big kalabas, which is cut in half and drawn by cow skin. It is the resonator. Its back part can be used also for maintenance of the rhythm. The resonator has a small opening. The neck is attached to it. Sounding of Kora is similar to a harp sound, but the game in traditional style reminds flamenco or blues guitar technicians. The player touches strings with big and fore fingers, holding the tool with others.

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  5. Udu
    Udu is a drum from Nigeria (West Africa). National versions of this instrument are made of clay, as one of the most widespread and available material. Deep and very unusual sounds of this drum seemed to Nigerians "voices of ancestors". That's why people thought that Udu has sacred properties. They used it in ceremonies of cult and religious character.

    The common name of this instrument doesn't exist, and the word "Udu" is just one of many names of these drums. Ibo tribes live in separated and absolutely independent groups. Each of them calls the instrument in their own way. It depends on the region and ceremonial purpose of Udu. There is also a big variety of playing technology. In Nigeria, it is most often called "abang mbre". It is translated approximately as "a pot for playing". There is no any special technics and methods of playing on Udu. It is possible to tap on it with a fist, a palm or fingertips. For changing of tone, people should pour a certain amount of water in the drum.
  6. Marimba
    Marimba is a percussion musical instrument. It consists of the wooden whetstones, which are strengthened on a frame. This instrument is similar to xylophone. But marimba differs from it in one moment. Its sound, made by each whetstone, amplifies by metal resonator or the pumpkin suspended under it. Marimba has rich, soft and deep timbre, which allows getting an expressive sounding. 

    It was created in Malaysia and then became widespread in Africa, Mexico, the Central and North America.Now marimba is known as the solo instrument. It is used in different musical genres. Some composers include marimba in works for a symphonic orchestra.
  7. Algaita
    Algaita can be met in the Western Africa. The special part is assigned to this instrument. People play on it only in the presence of governors. Thanks to its special sounding, it creates the atmosphere of solemnity, which is necessary during presence of officials. Algaita is known since the fourteenth century. For the first time is has been found in the tribe of Fulani in the Western Africa. Later the instrument has expanded its geography. Now it can be met, for example, in Burma.

    Algaita isn't difficult in production. Its main part consists of a tube, which is made of the whole piece of a tree. Then it is covered by leather of animals. It isn't too difficult to play the algaita. However, the musician should have a certain skill. It is interesting that they can play this instrument continuously. How to reach it? The secret is covered in special breath. It is necessary to inhale the air through nose, and to exhale it by means of cheeks.
  8. Balafon
    Balafon is characteristic for many countries in Africa. It can be met in Mozambique, Angola, Benin, Gabon, Gambia, republic of Congo, Cameroon, Malawi, Mali, Senegal, and Chad. The instrument consists of 15-22 plates, which are made of a firm tree. They are dried on a fire. Then a master must saw it before receiving the necessary sound.

    Pumpkins are resonators, which are located under the plates. They are often filled with small stones or dried-up seeds. It helps to change a sound. Then parts are connected with the thongs made of skin. Balafon is used by vagrant actors as the solo or accompanying instrument.

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  9. Shekere
    This instrument has a set of names but habitual "shekere" was born in Nigeria. The case of traditional shekere is made of the dried-up pumpkin. Then it is braided outside with a grid with a seed beads, cockleshells or small stones that adds a characteristic sound. Modern producers use a nylon or cotton grid with plastic beads.

    Thanks to various methods of playing, a shekere is the multipurpose instrument. The musician can shake or strike it. Shekere is quite capable to replace a drum or maracas.
  10. The talking drum
    The talking drum
    This is a special type of African drums, which was a mean of communication between villages for the first time. The drum sound can imitate human speech. As a rule, talking drum is similar to hourglasses. It is covered by skin and wrapped with belt. During playing, the musician strikes a drum with a curved stick. Squeezing its ropes, he changes sounding height. The stronger a drum is squeeze, the higher it sounds.

    All this things create various options of drum language, thanks to which it is possible to transfer various messages and signs to the neighboring villages. Some examples of drum rhythms are connected with spiritual beings in each tribe. Villages across all Western Africa begin their day with such blessing. The speaking drum is one of the oldest instruments used by the people of Western Africa. It has also extended to the Central and South America through the Caribbean Sea at the time of slave trade. That time the speaking drums were forbidden for the Afro-Americans because slaves used them for communication.
  11. Kpanlogo
    It is a traditional drum. Its story begins in the western region of Ghana. The case of a drum is made of a firm tree, and membrane of leather of an antelope. The leather is fastened and adjusted by means of special pegs inserted into an opening in the case. The Kpanlogo performer has to be inventive and to conduct musical dialogue with other instruments. The musical part of Kpanlogo includes improvisation elements, a constant changing of melody, which depends on the movements of the dancer.

    While playing Kpanlogo, the musician uses a palm. Its receptions are similar to playing on Congo or a Jembe. The drum is clamped with legs and slightly inclined from performer. It is very interesting and melodious instrument, which beautifully sounds both in a group and in solo. 
  12. Bougarabou 
    Bougarabou — a percussion instrument used in the western Africa. As a rule, the musician plays three or four drums at the same time. The case reminds a form of a cup or something like a turned cone. 

    Several years ago, it used to be a solo instrument. Musicians played it with one hand and a stick. However, the last generations began to assemble bougarabous in installations. Perhaps, influence of the Congo has affected in this case. For the best sounding, a drummer puts on a special metal bracelet, which gives color to a sound. It turns out beautiful, bright and deep. On the other hand, the sound is practical: it is heard for many miles. Bougarabou is often used as a background bass for joint play with Jembe and other drums. However, it is perfectly suitable also for solo play.

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  13. Valiha
    Valiha is a Madagascar string instrument. It was created in Southeast Asia (Malaziya, Philippines and Vietnam) before Christ. This name was formed from the word "vadya", which means a sacred musical instrument. It is the first type of musical instruments, which existed on Madagascar. Classical valiha is a cylindrical piece of a hollow bamboo trunk. Strips of bark are used as strings, which are pinched by fingers. During the playing, a performer holds valiha on lap. The upgraded instrument is supplied with metal or vein strings. Its length makes about 1.2 meters and diameter is about 10 centimeters.

    Valikh can accompany all instruments. It is used in traditional, popular and modern music. At the time of kings of the valiha was hidden from noblemen. But it didn't prevent slaves to play instrument and open their talent, despite threat of punishment from their owners. Because of fear, they pretended that they don't know how to play valiha. Sometimes slaves much more surpassed the owners in skill of playing.

    Valiha was also used for playing on family holidays, funeral, and concerts or at religious festivals. It is held between legs or on lap, played with fingers of both hands. The most talented players make very light touches.
  14. Ashiko
    Ashiko is a West African percussion musical instrument. It is a drum. Its form reminds truncated cone. Ashiko's homeland is probably Nigeria, Yoruba tribe. The name of the instrument is most often translated as "freedom". Ashiko was used in carrying out rituals of dedication, military rituals, communication with ancestors, signaling on distances etc.

    It is traditionally produced from an integral piece of strong tree, but modern ashiko (as well as many others) are made of the fastened strips. Goat or antelope leather was used most often as membrane. Modern ashiko has plastic ones. Tension of membrane is controlled by system of ropes and rings. Height of the instrument varies from half a meter to meter.

    It has some differences with jembe, where the cup-form makes possible only two main tones. The sound of ashiko depends on how close to the edge (or to the center) of membranes a musician makes a struck. In traditional music, ashiko practically never accompanies jembe, as these are absolutely different drums. There is an opinion that ashiko is a "man" drum, and jembe — "female" one.
  15. Vambi
    Vambi it is a string musical instrument. It is widespread in Sudan and in the tropical countries of East Africa. It is also called ubo or kissumbo. The case of the instrument is made of a tree or of the dried-up pumpkin. From above, it is covered with a wooden soundboard. One end of a string is attached to cane pegs in the lower part of the case, and other end — to flexible bamboo cores. These cores seek to become straight. That's why strings are pulled. Vambi is used as solo instrument or as accompaniment for singing.

Now you have learned about 15 famous African musical instruments. These are the embodiment of idea that everything ingenious is simple. It is worth listening how they sound. Perhaps you’ll want to try playing one of them. Anyway, don't forget to enjoy this unusual playing.


I have been fond of the culture of different countries and it was very interesting to read this article. Music of the African countries are very alluring and unique, like having zakaldovanaya. But she is one of the most ancient. But though I know some information about the music, but do not even know that she has so many types. I really enjoyed this article, I really learned a lot of things for their overall development, I am now going to tell your children, let them know about such a beautiful, unique and multi-faceted music. Great, now I will be more deeply explore this destination.

Answered 1 year ago.
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