Sounds And Beats: 15 Unique African Musical Instruments

The unique sounds and beats of African music have gained popularity globally, but have been delighting Africans for millennia. Much of this is due to the enormous repertoire of instruments used, using everything form strings and wind, to keys and drums. The following are just a sampling of some of the most unique African musical instruments that have been played for generations.

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1. Adungu

The adungu originates from Uganda, but can be found across Eastern and Central Africa. A nine-stringed harp, the adungu comes in different sizes and may be played alone or in a group. 

2. Akadinda

The akadinda is also commonly found in Uganda and throughout Central Africa, and is particularly popular among the Baganda people. Up to six people may play one akadinda at once, sitting on opposite sides of the instrument and playing in quick interlocking patterns. Akadindas are normally set up permanently in a spot, as they are supported by banana trees and placed over a tuned pit in order to carry the notes further.

3. Slit drum

A slit drum is more-or-less exactly what it sounds like: a hollow box (normally made of bamboo or another wood) with slits cut through it. It is struck with a special mallet in various places to create different pitches. The wood it is constructed from, the size, and the shape of the drum all affect the sound, allowing for a lot of diversity between one slit drum and another.

4. Nyanga pan pipes

Named by the Nyungwe people in Mozambique, nyanga pan pipes are similar to other flutes, but the number of players varies for each instrument. They are often played in an ensemble that may include dozens of other pipe players, and many musicians are able to contribute to intricate dancing while playing as well.

5. Kalimba

The kalimba is a type of thumb piano that exists in extremely simple or advanced constructions: at its core, it consists of a hollow block of wood with metal tabs that the player plucks against the box to create notes. Some more modern kalimbas allow for the instrument to be plugged in to a power source in order to amplify the sound.

6. Djembe

Djembe drums are usually covered in animals skins and laced with rope in order to tune the instrument (tighter ropes produce a higher note; looser ones allow for more a deeper bass). The body can be carved from any variety of hardwood, and its construction will influence the sound. Traditionally, only men play the djembe.

7. Zeze

With just one-to-three strings, the zeze doesn’t look like the most complicated instrument, but is in fact capable of producing incredible notes. It’s very inexpensive to build one — it’s often made from junk lying around, such as old steel or a bicycle wire. The wire or string is then plucked or played with a bow and can produce a wide variety of sounds depending on its frame.

8. Axatse

One of the more popular instruments in Africa, the axatse has its origins in Ghana and consists of a hollowed-out gourd turned into a rattle. Woven around it in a net are beads or seeds of glass, wood, bamboo, or other materials. The player shakes the instrument by the long neck of the gourd. It is commonly played with the gonkoqui, also from Ghana.

9. Gonkoqui

Gonkoqui bells are unique in that two bells are joined together with entirely different pitches. The player strikes them continually to produce a repeating pattern, but the two different tones create a full, melodic sound. They can either be played with one gonkoqui set in each hand, or by striking a pair with a mallet.

10. Alounloun

Commonly used for Adjogan music, an alounloun is a percussion instrument that consists of a large stick with rings on it. It’s shaken similar to an axatse. Alounlouns are longer and somewhat regal looking, and are ideal for keeping consistent beats within an arrangement.

11. Fulani Flute

Wind instruments are popular throughout Africa. This one is an example from the Fulani peoples of West Africa. It comes from the highlands of Guinea, and is said to have a profound effect upon its listeners.

12. Kudu Horn

Music from a kudu horn has a mellow and warm sound. The horn itself comes from the kudu antelope. Its plastic cousin may be more familiar since the world cup in 2010, where the ‘vuvuzela’ was a noisy contributor to the spirit of the competition.

13. Hausa Trumpet

Trumpets can be made from a combination of materials throughout Africa, including in East and Central Africa where they are made from hide, gourds, horn or a combination. In West Africa, the Hausa have two forms of trumpet. The long metal kakai and the wooden farai.

14. Xalam

This is a traditional stringed instrument from West Africa, thought by some to be the ancestor of the American banjo. It is common throughout the Sahel region of Africa. The name comes from the Wolof peoples and it is thought to have originated in Ancient Egypt. At its most basic, this is a lute with anything from one to five strings.

15. Xhosa Uhadi Bow

Common among the Xhosa people, this is similar to a single-string violin, and produces a low humming sound when played. It’s also known as an igubu amongst the Zulu people.

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