The mysterious, rootsy sounds and looks of African percussion instruments make curious to learn more about where they come from. Below, we’ll look at these ethnic instruments in their cultural context.
Nowadays, many African drums, djembes or percussion sets for sale in the West were not made in Africa, even if the label says “African”. When looking to purchase, it’s hard to tell the difference if you are inexperienced.
Here is where you’ll find authentic African instruments to buy. I know they are real, because I was watching the artisans making them in Ghana for years.
Shakers and rattles
Shakers and rattles play a big role in traditional African religions. They may call spirits in sacred ceremonies or emphasize the words and actions of important people.
In more modern societies though, kids use them as toys and musicians as fun and rootsy percussion instruments.
Some examples of these instruments are djembe shakers, the kosikas, the caxixi, juju shakers, ankle shakers etc.
There’s a surprising variety of African xylophone culturesas it is one of the continents most central instruments.
Some ethnic groups use it as a means of communication.
An absolutely fascinating example of this is the balafon, which recites the whole history of the Mande people.
Other examples of xylophnes are the gyil, timbila, palaku, shilimba, mbaire or the aso-or-doso.
Just like the rattles, bells often have ritual or ceremonial functions in traditional societies.
But in neo-traditional music groups, bells are also the backbone of the whole ensemble. Their rhythm often lets you immediately recognize the music’s ethnic origin.
Examples are the atoke babana bell, frikywa castenets, dunun bells etc.
Read about the use and purpose of the Ewe people’s gankogui double bell in detail.
The African thumb piano is deeply rooted in African culture. It appears throughout the continent with different features and names: Mbira, Karimba, Sanza, Prempensua are just a few of them.
The thumb piano even successfully made it into Western culture under the name “Kalimba”.
Even in the West, we love these instruments so much that they deserve a separate section on this website. Click here for more info on African drums.
The same goes for the most popular of all African drums: the djembe. You can read everything you want to know in my Djembe drum guide. Enjoy!