African Musical Instruments: Types & Facts

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever heard of a kora or a kalimba? How about a balafon? They're all used to make music. In this lesson, explore different types of African musical instruments and learn facts related to them.

African Music

Africa is a large continent with many countries and cultures, some of which date back thousands of years. These diverse cultures have a variety of musical traditions that use different kinds of instruments. African musical instruments range from simple hand-held objects to large and more elaborate instruments made of many pieces.

Throughout history, African peoples across the continent used music for many important purposes. It wasn't just for entertainment. Solemn rituals and rousing ceremonies, funerals and mourning processes often were accompanied by drumming as well as sometimes vocal and instrumental music. People made instruments from materials available to them, like wood, gourds, animal horns and skins. Sometimes they also recycled material like scrap metal to make instruments.

The use and kinds of instruments vary widely from region to region. Africa is vast so we can't cover them all, but let's look at a few good examples.

Types of African Instruments

Percussion Instruments

Among the most important African instruments are drums and other percussion. They're used in almost all African cultures for ceremonies and rituals, some of which involve dancing.

African music uses all sorts of rattles and shakers. These instruments are portable and hand-held, and they effectively provide rhythm. One example is a shekere. Made of a dried and hollowed out gourd, it is covered with a net that has beads or small shells woven into it. When the gourd is hit or shaken, the beads or shells hit against the surface and make a sound.

Another common example of an African percussion instrument is a djembe, a goblet-shaped drum made of carved wood with an animal hide stretched over an open top, which is usually larger than the bottom.

Different sizes of djembe drums for sale in an African market
djembe drums in an African market

The djembe comes from West Africa, especially around Mali. It's played with the hand hitting the stretched skin surface.

One of the larger African instruments is also related to percussion. The balafon is similar to a xylophone. It's made of wood, gourds, and vines. Wooden keys or planks are cut in several sizes and attached to gourds that sit beneath them, all of which are attached to a large frame. When a musician hits the keys with mallets, the sound echoes in the gourd. In the traditions of some African cultures, the balafon has ceremonial importance related to funerals and mourning.

Members of the Susa people of West Africa playing a djembe, left, and a balafon, at right, 1931
djembe drum and balafon

Stringed Instruments

African cultures also use many kinds of string instruments, including things like harps, some of which date back more than 5,000 years. One of the most famous African string instruments is the kora, which is similar to a cross between a harp and a lute. The kora has a sound box made of a gourd covered in animal hide that's attached to a long wooden neck. Between the top of the neck and the sound box it has twenty-one strings that a musician plucks or strums to play music. This instrument also comes from West Africa and is mostly played by male musicians.

Musician with a kora

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