african musical instrument

Music and dance are the heart and soul of African culture, while also playing a vital role in communication, celebration and ceremonies. Africa’s wide range of eclectic traditional musical instruments produces rich, diverse sounds, some of which are only heard during special occasions, while others face extinction. Others are still very much alive.

You can learn a lot about a country’s sound through stories passed down orally. You’ll recognise many of this African percussion, stringed and wind pieces from music lessons at school. Most Aussie kids explore a diverse range of items from maracas to wooden flutes, but there is so much more to learn. Come with us as we discover more about these, and many more that you may not know originated from this part of the world.

The Sounds of African Percussion, Wind and Strings

Let’s take a deep dive into the world of African musical instruments. Here are a few you might recognise – and some you may not.

1. Maracas

Originating from West Africa, maracas or ‘shekere’ is perhaps one of the most well-known percussion instruments that all cultures experience from childhood. As a feature of Ewe music (a style originating from the Ewe people in the western part of the country), maracas are traditionally made out of a hollowed, cleaned and threaded gourd, which is a large fruit filled with seeds or beads. The tones are produced when shaken or slapped, complementing a range of genres.

2. Djembe

A ‘djembe’ is a goblet-shaped drum that’s covered with skin. Originating from Guinea and Mali, it's believed that its name comes from the Mali term ‘anke-dje-anke-be’, translating to ‘everyone gather together’. It's still highly popular across the globe due to the rhythm and beat it produces.

3. Udu

The term ‘udu’ means ‘pot’. It looks like a clay water jug with an extra hole. This instrument is popular among the Igbo tribe in South-eastern Nigeria. The melodies are created by the player hitting it with their fingers or palm, producing relaxing tones like soothing water droplets.

4. Wooden Flutes

Primarily found in Guinea and Senegal, the wooden flute is made from ethically sourced conical vine, wrapped in leather and handstitched in cloth and cowrie shell. Also known as a tambin, they produce dynamic melodies often used in orchestras, particularly for ballet.

5. Marimba

When you say the word marimba, it instantly puts you in the mood to get grooving, especially as you hear its soft and melodic tones. Developed in Zimbabwe, this traditional wooden xylophone is known as the 'mother of song.' According to the nation’s oral history, it was created by an African goddess. 

6. Kalimba

The kalimba is also known as a thumb piano. Its harmonic, mellow notes are created by plucking the keys with your thumbs and covering and uncovering the holes for vibrato. It's relatively small and easily held in two hands.

7. Bendir

The ‘bendir’ looks like a tambourine in a wooden frame, but instead of shaking it, it creates a noise when hit with the palm or fingers. This way it creates a rhythm and a beat to dance to. This percussion instrument is synonymous with the North of Africa and is most often used in special ceremonies of the Sufi traditions. 

8. Akoting

Commonly found in West Africa, the akoting is said to be the inspiration for the modern-day banjo. Oral history says its birthplace was in a Senegal village called Kanjanka. Almost skeletal in design, it has three strings and a simple wooden body that plays the part of the rhythm of a song.

9. Mbira

The ‘mbira’ is another member of the percussion family. Known by a range of names, including ‘agidigbo’, the mbira is often used in hip-hop songs due to the unique sounds it produces. It resembles a compact, hollowed-out box with many metal strips in varying sizes. 

10. Kora

Belonging to the string family, this versatile piece is known as a 'double-bridge-harp-lute’, with the sound it makes resembling that of a harp. It’s often strummed when telling stories, singing or reciting poetry. Made from calabash and covered in skin, it is deeply grounded in the country’s culture.

11. Ekwe

Falling under the category of percussion, the Ekwe is a set of drums found in the community of Igbo. It is simply a hollowed-out tree trunk with rectangular slots. Its sound is impressive and it's deep and rich, creating beautiful beats. The best thing is that it's easy to play.

Bonus Item – Algaita

The Algaita is a wind instrument, and it’s the perfect choice for all lovers of jazz. This oboe-like piece produces flute-like sounds when placing your fingers over the four holes. Covered in leather, it has a trumpet-like bell that you blow through in order to play. 

Taking in the Sounds of Africa

Many people play these traditional musical instruments without knowing anything about their origins. Discover a range of these unique and beautiful items in our online store, including the DjembeKalimbaMaracas and Wooden Flutes, so you can add diverse sounds to your ensemble.

See a range of traditional African wind instruments in action at Melbourne Music Centre!