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Typical instruments of Africa | Travel News

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If you don’t know Africa or are not aware of the cultural and musical richness of this continent, you may think that Africans only play drums. It is not like that! There are not only percussion instruments here, but wind, string and a complex variety capable of generating beautiful and unforgettable sounds.

Let’s find out today in Travvel Guide, typical instruments of Africa.

african music

When you do musical historiography on this ancient continent, you discover that you have to go back in time. This is how we discover wonders. For example, in the 5th century BC, Hanno the Carthaginian was here, making a brief visit to the west coast, during one of his naval expeditions, and noted the existence of wind instruments as well as percussion instruments . He recounts having heard the sounds of flutes, cymbals and the roar of drums.

But the truth is that in addition to these types of musical instruments noted by the browser and explorer also there were and still are a variety of stringed instruments ranging from simple things to varieties of harps, lyres and zithers. Also, each company tends to specialize in certain particular instruments and this varies from region to region.

Same, in the 20th century, hybrids emerged from outside influence.This is the case of segankuru and the ramkie (chordophones), from southern Africa; or the malipenga from Tanzania and Malawi. It should be considered that musical instruments in these societies have various roles. Some focus only on religious life or particular cultural or social rituals, others have restricted use to certain people of a certain gender, age, or social status.

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For example, among the Xhosa tribe, only girls play the jew’s harp, an imported version of the classical oral harp that they have always used. Next, musical instruments here are also used outside the solemn, to lighten social gatherings and accompany a dancefor example, accompanying the cattle in their pasture, conveying messages or, together, with trumpets, to make speeches, or alone, to accompany a song.

Let us now see what types of African instruments exist.


Idiophone instruments are those that they have their own sound because they use their bodies as resonant matter. They are percussion instruments and produce sound mainly by the vibration of their bodies, without air, strings or membranes.

We can talk like that about grooved drums. They are usually made of bamboo or wood, empty, to which several slits have been made so that it rings when struck. This type of instrument is easy to play and build. One of the oldest is Gankokian iron bell, double bell, played by the Ewe people of Ghana, who are part of the orchestral skeleton of Togo, Ghana and Benin, for example.

The maracas and rattles They are widely used across the continent and come in all sizes and shapes, materials, natural, artificial, leather, fruits, coconuts, cans, etc. The filling can be anything from stones to seeds. In turn, they are used with the hands or, if they have another shape, they can be worn on the ankles, wrists, head…

Finally, there are melodic idiophone instruments such as xylophones and lamellophones. Lamellophones are musical instruments that have a long, thin plate attached to only one end. When the performer touches the free end and slides a finger over the metal or bamboo plate, it vibrates. In the case of Africa, we are talking about instruments such as sanza, jew’s harp, mbira or kalimba.

A single mbira can have between six and eight keys but there are some with 36. They are usually played by men and children but lately there are more women. The Mbira Dzavadzimu, “voice of the ancestors”, has many possible tones, between 22 and 28 if it is made of metal. If we talk about xylophones then there is the amadinda, the baan, the balafon and the marimba.

Xylophones are usually box-shaped with keys mounted on a wooden frame and resonators underneath. They are very old on the continent and are often perceived as a musical imitation of language. In Guinea, a national treasure is the Sosso bala. They couldn’t bring it from France until 2002, and it’s 800 years old. In Burkina Faso there is the Gyil, played only by men, it aspires to communication with the ancestors of the Lobi and Degara tribes.

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The chordophones are string instruments: we are talking about harps, lyres, zithers, lutes, violins, musical bows…these are mainly played in Southern Africa and include ground bows, pointed bows, mouth bows and resonance bows.

In West Africa, particularly in Mali, these harps and lutes are numerous, but the most popular is the Kora. Traditional koras have 21 strings, 11 right and 11 left. It is played with the strings raised. For their part, the zithers are positioned horizontally.

The number of strings in a harp varies from 3 to 4, such as the Bolon or the Molo, although there are 7 or 8. Some sounds resemble bass sounds, others sound more like a classical guitar and others as well like harps. There can be solos or be in an orchestra.

What is certain is that Harps or kundis are one of the most popular stringed instruments in Africa and especially they are found in the south of the continent. They are peaceful and silent instruments that are generally used to accompany a singer or a poet.


Are the aerial instruments and among them we have the flutes, bagpipes, trumpets, horns and whistles. In this type of instruments, the vibration of the air produces a high-pitched sound, like a siren. They are present in many countries across the continent and perform in dances of all kinds.

Whistlers are made of reeds or, nowadays, metal. Traditional flutes are made from bamboo or cane. In countries like Burkina Faso, Sudan, Uganda or Chad, groups of around a hundred flautists form on special occasions. Everyone plays a single note and the cooperation of the group is essential for the right result. What mastery!

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By his account, horns are usually made from the horns of cows, ivory, or wild animals. They are used to convey messages, announce arrivals or simply as a musical instrument. In general we see them in countries like Ivory Coast and surroundings.

membrane telephones

These are instruments that they have a membrane which, when struck, generates the sound. Obviously, they are synonymous with Africa. They usually appear in three shapes: kettle, cup and hourglass.

African drums have great historical and cultural significance, they are played at social events, birth, death and wedding ceremonies. They are used in warfare, they are used for communication, and they are very meaningful to the community.

The drums are played with the hands, with a stick or with bones. The skin surface (of antelope, sheep, goat or cow, sometimes zebra or reptile), can be rough and create softer sounds, and sometimes the drums have metal beads or seeds attached and thus the sounds are softer. They may or may not have handles.


These are the instruments that produce a sound when struck, scratched, shaken by an object or body part. In the case of Africa, we have that this type of instrument forms an important part of the African spirit.

The performances of the percussion groups are always loud, dynamic, joyful. In this group we can name the African rain stick. And we only name a few typical instruments of Africa. There are many others and the universe of traditional African music is immense.

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