Ancient African Instruments

Music has always held a position of utmost distinction in African culture and its wide variety of instruments is a big reason for that. Unlike any other cultures, ancient Africans did not only use instruments to produce music but also employed them to communicate with both human and spirits by emitting and translating everyday experiences and events.

As a matter of fact, some of these instruments are used for ceremonial and religious occasions while others are utilized for entertainment. Ideally, these instruments vary in complexity and sizes but they are typically constructed from natural materials using age-old techniques.

The lamellophone thumb piano or mbira

The migratory movement and historical influences of people have characterized the type of instruments that were played in different regions. It is, however, important to note that ancient Africans had several restrictions and parameters to the age, gender and status of the player.

Among the most popular instruments that were used by Ancient Africans were talking drums. Normally, a talking drum is an instrument that has an hourglass-shaped torso which is slung above one shoulder and held under the other arm. Players can subsequently change its pitch and sounds by simply squeezing the drum.

It is believed that Africans did not only beat the drums to produce music but also to announce important matters which include birth and death or even to usher in the arrival of people with prominent political distinction. In addition to that, drums were also used in ceremonies, celebrations and long-distance communication.

Apart from talking drums, the Africans also made use of idiophonic instruments which include slit drums, rattles, shakers, clappers, bells, gongs and scrapers. These types of instruments are also considered to be the easiest to learn and to create.

Interesting Facts about Ancient African Musical Instruments

  • Even though wind instruments were not so popular in the musical culture of Africa, instruments such as the ivory horn and the algaita left their stamp on the historical timeline of this continent.
  • Mbira which is a part of the idiophone family originated from Africa but is utilized by most musicians globally and is known by different names. It is sometimes called as the marimbula, sanza, kisanji and agidigbo.
  • A kalimba is a type of Mbira which was developed by the NW tribes of Zimbabwe in South Africa.
  • The balafon is a percussion instrument which can be played like a xylophone. It is ordinarily found in countries such as the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana.
  • Rattles and shakers were used to come up with background rhythm to any song. Typically, these instruments come in different shapes and forms which range from anklets, belts and necklaces to calf bracelets and handheld shakers.
  • The Bara which is a spherical drum that originated in West Africa is mainly used to accompany the balafon.
  • The Ngoma whose name came from the word konga is made of wood and is consists of membranes that are constructed with zebra and goat skins.
  • Musical bows are widely played in South Africa. Players usually bow, strike and pluck the string to generate sounds from a musical bow.

Sosso Bala

What is the Sosso Bala?

The Sosso Bala was the name given to a xylophone that was considered as a national treasure by the government of Guinea.

What are rattles and shakers made of?

Rattles and shakers are made of different materials which range from leather, animal gall bladders, bronze bells, bottle tops, cowrie shells and coconuts.

What is Gankogui?

The Gankogui which is a bell instrument used by the Ewe people of Ghana is considered to be one of the oldest musical instruments in Africa. It is primarily made up of iron and is played using a wooden stick in order to come up with deep yet resonating music.

Where did the Balafon originate?

The Balafon originated from Mali in the 14th century.