Archive for the ‘African Music Instruments’ Category
Nearly all African music instruments in the United States can be categorized in three ways: string, wind and percussion. Let’s begin with the string instruments.
Another name for string instruments is chordophone. These create sound from vibrating strings made of metal or gut, and within the family of strings there are three sub-categories:
Harps- which mount their strings in a right angle to the soundboard.
Citres or Zithers- instruments which don’t have a neck and use the body for the string-mount. A common zither or citres in the U.S. is a piano or harpsichord.
Lutes – a device with strings supported on a neck and with a resonance chamber. Americans know this type from guitars and violins.
There are a variety of ways to produce sound from a string instrument. Musicians can pluck the strings with their fingers or with a plucking device like a pick or even a feather. Some instruments are played with the assistance of a bow of horse-hair or similar synthetic material. By moving the bow across the strings, the strings vibrate and create sound. Lastly, struck string instruments involve hammer sticks to make sound by hitting keyboards attached to strings.
Another category of African instruments in the U.S. are the winds. Among these are flutes, reed pipes, lip vibrated instruments and free reeds.
Another word for wind instruments is aerophone, both the pipe aerophone like flutes and trumpets, and the free aerophone such as the mouth organ and accordion. The pipe aerophones create sound by resonating air blown into or over an opening. The free version controls the pitch by lengthening or shortening the length of the reed.
In some countries reed instruments are made from metal such as the harmonica or the accordion, however the African music instruments in the United States typically use wood and other materials that come from the land.
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Aside from the Kenyan flutes, Kenya has perhaps one of the most diverse assortments of popular music forms, in addition to multiple layers of folk music based on the variety over 40 regional languages. Different ethnic groups each have their own folk music traditions using many different instruments.
Like most African music, Kenyan music is not made for its own sake. Music was functional. It was used for ceremonial, religious, political, or incidental purposes. Kenyan musical instruments range from percussion to strings to wind instruments.
The Indweba is a kind of pan pie that can be made from made the umhlanga river reed. Whistles of various materials are associated with indigenous medicine, divinatory practices, casting spells, and ventriloquism among the Bantus of Kenya. The Indweba are normally made of animal bones, horns, wood, and reed and typically filled with potent ointments, powders, sometimes with snuff of various snake-poison antidotes.
Another example of a Kenyan flute is the Umtshingo. It is a seven-holed flute that can be made of uqalo bamboo, umhalanga river reed, or dried ummbila corn-stalk. Among the Bantu of south eastern Africa (particularly rural Kwazulu-Natal) the flutes were made and played by prepubescent boys when herding cattle and goats.
The name “Umtshingo” is literally translated as that which has to be discarded because there was a strict rule against whistling and blowing on flutes either indoors or within the grounds of a homestead, for fear of disturbing the family’s departed spirits, or the “sleeping ones.” On returning with their animals at the end of the day, the young people had to hide, or discard their flutes, hence the name “Umtshingo.”
The “Umtshingo-mbatho” is a flute-apron that can be worn as a garment, the flute being horizontally draped, yoke-like, behind the shoulders with grass mat-strips hanging in front and behind the body. A five-holed variation on Umtshingo, it is blown in the middle.
These are just some examples of Kenyan flutes.
Simply beautiful, the finger harp is an integral part of African music culture that originated in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Africa it is known as the mbira, but this double-consonant word confuses many westerners, so in America it is translated into the finger harp; the name explaining the purpose of this lovely instrument.
The finger harp is played by a single musician; however it is rarely performed as a solo. More frequently, it is played as a feature of other musicians, vocalists and dancers.
If there is one word to describe the music of Africa, it is variety, and the options exist with the same instrument. For example, the finger harp is not a uniformly designed instrument. There are 33-note versions played by performers in Zimbabwe and smaller types of 6 notes the Bushmen of Kalahari use.
And it’s not just the size that varies; the name itself changes from region to region in Africa. It is mbira in Zimbabwe, but the same instrument is called the Kalimba in Kenya, the ikembe in Rwanda and likembe in the Congo.
Other names include the sanza, sansa, gourd piano, marimba, marimbula, and thumb piano. You can see why westerners are confused by this instrument as it is difficult to keep up with the names!
The kalimba was actually introduced by an Englishman named Hugh Tracey who moved to Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, to assist in the running of a tobacco farm. Tracey created a diatonic instrument similar to the mbira in the 1960s which became popular around the world.
Translated, the Kalimba means “little music” and it’s perfect for playing harmony with both thumbs. You’ll find this instrument throughout the world, particularly the Middle East, Asia and North and South America.
Regardless of how it is called, the kalimba, or mbira or finger harp has an important place in the culture of African music.
The Finger Harp is known by many names in Africa: mbira, kalimba and ikembe, though various regions of the continent use one name more than others.
This beautiful sounding instrument traces its roots to the 1920s and businessman Hugh Tracey who emigrated from England to Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. He came to assist his brother with a tobacco farm however he was quickly enchanted by the local culture.
Music was particularly intriguing to Tracey. By the 1960s he created a kind of mbira called the kalimba which became popular throughout the world. The performer is able to use both thumbs to play harmony and for that reason, the kalimba, translated as “little music”, is popular in the West. The kalimba is also played in Asia, the Middle East and South and North America because of its ease of use.
The mbira is similar. Like the kalimba it uses wood and strings to produce sound. The mbira has metal tongues called lamellas on top. The sound box itself if made of wood or gourd, and demonstrating the industrious spirit of the African people, the metal keys are sometimes make from old mattress spring wire, bicycle spokes or the handles of spoons.
Sound is produced by plucking the strings with the thumbs, or thumbs and fingers. It is common to find holes drilled into the sides of the box so the musician can vary the resonance and sound by blocking the holes.
All of the finger harps produce a sound that is well suited for diverse melodies and rhythms. There are usually two melodic parts in the music created for this instrument; a kushaura and a kutsinhira, and the sound is typically a pattern of four 12 beat phrases.
The Finger Harp is often played along with other performers who clap and sing, making this instrument a joyful and soulful expression of African sound.
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Many Traditional African Instruments evolved out of fabricating the instrument by hand, using materials available in the home. Today they are made with fine materials and their popularity is growing around the world.
One of these instruments is a xylophone called a Balafon or Marimba. It’s made from the Shea Butter tree that has been dead for many years and has released the oils from the wood. That wood gets cut into boards and is further dried over fire pits.
The wood is cut into smaller pieces and combined with gourds to amplify the sound. Sound is made by striking the planks with pieces of rubber made from old truck tires. The professional Balafon is large and comprised of a hardwood frame with keys made from hardwood or metal.
African Bells are another traditional musical instrument and these were used as a means of communication between villages. Many Bells come from Ghana but also from Nigeria and Cameroon.
The Nigerian Double Gong is 12 inches tall and produces two different gong sounds. The toke bell is also called a Banana Bell for its oblong shape. It is held in the palm of the hand and hit with a metal beater. Small Toke Bells are 6 inches long while the large one is 10 inches.
There’s another class of instrument called shakers. Most are made from wood and gourds and they produce a steady rattling sound. One of the largest is a bead shaker, approximately 11 inches long and 8 inches wide. A large shaker like this stands up well to the heavy percussive sound of drums and is preferred by many artists.
Drums are an important part of African music and there are many varieties available. Large and small, drums round out the unique and powerful sound made with Traditional African Instruments.
The purpose of African Wind Instruments is quite different from the musical instruments of the United States and Europe.
In Africa, musicians do not seek to produce a lyrical and melodious sound that is always pleasing to the ear. There is a message in the music of Africa that is conveyed through the centuries from this second largest continent in the world.
The most commonly used instrument in World Music is percussion. Whether it is a drum, rattle, bells, clapper or rattle, percussion speaks a language that bridges the many cultures and the 50 countries which comprise the African continent.
Wind instruments are not as prominent as drums in the music of this culture. Their construction incorporates all natural materials made available by nature and produce a more subtle sound. For example, some wind instruments are made from conch shells, animal tusks and horns or wood and gourds.
Pre-made musical instruments can be very expensive to buy in Africa so from an early age children are taught how to make their own. In addition to the elements found in nature, children construct wind instruments from household items like pipes or even corn stalks.
As the sound of air passing over the material changes with the material itself, wind instruments in Africa have a very unique tonal quality. Whether it is an ocarina, oboe, panpipe or whistle, these instruments add to the complex nature of the music. Virtually anything can be used to create a wind instrument, even a can of soda pop.
Because traditional African music is not passed down in writing in the way music composition is passed to the next generation in the west, the instruments create patterns to the sound which are altered by the tone of the language. It is the pattern of the music and African Wind Instruments that gets carried forth through the generations.
The Ensasi instrument is commonly found in traditional Ugandan music, particularly in east and central Uganda.
It is a class of musical instrument called a shaker, typically a gourd and sometimes modified to have a stick handle. The gourd is hollowed out and filled with dried seeds. This allows for a shaking motion that is a polyrhythmic companion to more melodic instruments like the mbira or fiddle.
There are various types of ensasi. For instance, in northern Uganda the device has a different shape and it produces a unique sound. This instrument moves from side to side to produce a continuous sound of beads moved within the shell.
Some ensasi have holes to produce a more hollow sound and some are made of tin and not natural vegetable material.
All musical instruments in Uganda play an important role in society. They are a large part of the history and cultural heritage of the people by their existence in the fabric of therapeutic, psychological and social planes.
Ugandan musical instruments serve different functions within various communities which accounts for broad differences across regions with one instrument. Some populations lived side by side and viewed their instruments in similar ways for like purposes, however other villages far from one another, with different politics and climate, evolved their music sometimes in opposite directions. The same material could produce a vastly different sound for different occasions.
Traditional music of this country features drums, logs, xylophones and the shakers. Along with the ensasi, other musical instruments of Uganda include the amadinda, ennanga, endingidi, engalabi, enkwanzi and the sansa.
When visiting Uganda you may be able to purchase these works of art for the eyes and ears. Along with the craft shops in the street stalls of Uganda, you can find traditional woodcarvings, basketry, and hand make instruments. You might find an ensasi to bring home to your family.
Samite submits more free African music for you on this blog.
We received another message from Samite telling about how he struck up a recent conversation on the internet which resulted in a lovely song played on an old tin based Kalimba.
“I recently started a communication with a guy called Agustin on Facebook about Kalimbas. He sent me a song he wrote and two days ago I wrote one for him.
My fans seem to like it very much. I am getting a lot of people commenting on it. Agustin who is from Argentina asked me if he could share this song with his parents. I think the best thing would be to bring this song to our blog and share it there.
The Kalimba I played this song on is something I got from the Congo two years ago. The song was inspired by my communication with Agustin on Facebook.
In the Congo the Kalimba is called Likembe. I have attached a photo of it in this email.
You may listen to this song here:
Most African instruments are divided by various categories: Balafons, Percussion, Shakers, Kalimbas, Strings, Bells, and Udus. Here are some examples.
To the Western eye and ear, balafons appear as xylophones and they come from Ghana. The musician who plays the balafon is usually a vocalist too. The balafon offers both rhythm and melody and has keys made from the Shea Butter tree. Only trees which have been dead for long periods of time are considered dry enough for this purpose.
Wood is cut and dried further over fires built in pits in the ground. The strips of wood are cut into keys and a sharp knife does finish work for tuning. Balafons are also made with metal keys to create a unique sound. Gourds support the frame and amplify the sound and rubber beaters are fashioned out of old truck tires. A balafon from Ghana costs $79.00 to $430.00.
Shakers are an African music tradition and there are roughly 25 different kinds commercially available. Most shakers are made of wood however some are made of beads, leather, woven reed, seed pods, coconut, even goat toes!
Gourd shakers are the most common and they are held in the hand and shaken back and forth to produce a rhythmic noise. These can be as long as 10 inches long and cost from $14.00 to $49.00.
Some musicians tie shakers to their ankles as well so they can produce an even more complicated sound originating in their dance. Ankle rattles tie at the bottom of the leg and they are made of seed pods and clacking goat toes.
Bells are a part of African music tradition and historically were used to send messages between villages. Ghana is a top producer of bells, along with Cameroon and Nigeria and they cost from $12.00 to $34.00.
Much different from the west, African instruments are colorful and lively extensions of the earth.
It is important for me to take time during my concerts to talk with my audience and answer their questions. One question that I am frequently asked is where my instruments come from. I have quite a collection – many that I take with me to every concert, but some that are so fragile or old so I keep them in the studio and they sometimes find their way into a recording.
I would like to share a story about a kalimba that I had in my possession for a very short time.
One evening we found a small package on the back porch. I had no idea what to expect as I did not recognize the name on the return address. When I opened it, I found a beautiful little handmade kalimba. The top was wood and the bottom was made out of what appeared to be a sardine can. It was painted blue with stars and moons along the side.
I immediately began to play the keys and the sound was so sweet – like chimes. I played this little kalimba while my girlfriend read the letter that was enclosed. The gentleman that sent it said that he had it made especially for me to give to one of the orphans that I work with when I visit East Africa. He requested from the craftsman that it be fashioned to play lullabies.
I have to admit that my first reaction was to keep it for awhile – it sounded different from any other kalimba that I have and I wanted to record it! I did play it for hours that evening and enjoyed every minute of it.
Eventually a group of orphans that I work with in Nairobi visited Ithaca NY for Christmas and I was able to spend some time with a young boy who I believe had a natural gift for playing kalimba music and was hopeful that I would send him home with one of his own.
On Christmas day this sweet lullaby kalimba found its home.