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popular african music instruments

5 popular African music instruments

29 September 2016 ARTS & CULTURE

By Nomali Cele

When mam’ Letta Mbulu sang There’s music in the air she wasn’t lying, we love our music. As we round off Heritage Month and Afro Soultemba, here are five musical instruments that are popular in Africa:


1.  The Kora

popular african music instruments

The Kora is so widely used across West Africa that a Pan-African music and culture awards ceremony – the Kora Awards – was named after the instrument. It has 21 strings and the design has been likened to that of a guitar. The base is made of a calabash and is covered in cowhide. The Kora sounds like a harp. Played in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Gambia, the Kora was used mainly for historical and storytelling purposes.

2. Uhadi musical bow

popular african music instruments

Uhadi is the Xhosa version and name of a bow instrument. A basic one consists of a wooden stick with
a brass string tied to it, a bit like a single-string violin. Uhadi also features a gourd calabash, which helps the audibility of the sound.

The musical bow is played in many African cultures including Venda, Zulu, Pedi, Sotho and Tswana.

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3. Mbira

popular african music instruments

Mbira is a hand-held instrument that is fitted with brass plates and is played using the thumbs. It is part of the lamellophone family of instruments, which are characterised by plates fitted onto the wooden base/resonator. The music comes from the vibrations made by the plates when they are strummed with the thumbs.

The mbira is a culturally important instrument for the Shona people of Zimbabwe; it’s the country’s national instrument. The Shona mbira (called mbira dzavadzimu) is made up of 22 to 28 metal plates inside a calabash (called a deze) which amplifies the sound.

4. Djembe drum

popular african music instruments

The djembe drum is distinctive, it looks like a goblet. The West-African drum is made from a hardwood shell and topped with goatskin. Unlike the drums made and used in South Africa, the djembe has the ability to make different sounds. Also unlike local drums, it is played strictly by hand.

5. Marimba

popular african music instruments

From above, the marimba looks like it could be the mbira’s big cousin. The percussion instrument has wooden bars, which are arranged like piano keys and played with ‘sticks’ called mallets. Players use a minimum of four mallets, two in each hand. While the marimba’s roots can be traced back to Central America, it’s quite popular in Southern Africa – if you have been in a tourist area, you’ve heard a marimba. It looks a lot like a xylophone and is prominent in orchestras.

What’s your favourite African instrument?

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