The Orchestra in the African Context
By Fred Onovwerosuoke.1999. All rights reserved

Orchestral music is not a novelty in Africa. Musicology and music history literature often associate this art form with the Western world. While it is true that this practice is more developed, aesthetically speaking, in this part of the world, it is worth noting that musicians playing in ensembles or large orchestras is not a new phenomenon in Africa. The polyrhythmic nature of much of African music makes ensemble-playing a necessity.

Ensembles vary from small (two performers) to very large orchestras (with as many as 100 musicians performing together!). The level of sophistication often depends on a number of factors: technical abilities of the individual musicians, how long a group has been together, how the leader arranges musical performance, etc.

Like those in the West, African traditional orchestras are also made up of sections, or sub-orchestras. Lighter instruments like the chordophones and idiophones usually sit together in front, while louder instruments like drums and other membranophones neatly arrange themselves behind. The position of the aerophones is also determined by their tenor. The performers may sit or stand - most usually stand! Each section has a leader, or master-player, who often features as soloist. Wherever their position in the ensemble, soloists usually ‘breakout’ to show off their talents. A distinct characteristic of an African orchestra is that performers are not passive; instrumentalists sing and dance as well. Musicians are very skilled in involving an audience, because such an exchange is integral to their performances.

Percussion Ensembles

They are very dominant in musical groups all over the continent. The type of instruments used vary by tribe or region. The percussive nature of African music also adds to the complexity of an ensemble’s percussion section. Africa, and rightly so, is the cradle of polyrhythm, and boasts of a wide array of instruments and talents to support this claim. The Senegambia region has djembes, kutiros and sabar drums, with the djundjun bass drums; in Ghana, one would find a combination of atsimevus, kpanlogos, sets of atumpan and fontomfrom, and gome. Tension drums, called tama in Mali, or dondo in Ghana, feature prominently. Among the Yorubas of Nigeria, they are called dundun, and their use as speech surrogate is a very advanced musical form that has become legendary around the world. Idiophones like metal gongs and wooden slit-drums are popular among the Ibos and Urhobos of Nigeria, Baules of Ivory Coast, and the Mlongos and Ekondas of Central Africa. Rattles or shakers are popular with many groups in Africa. A very interesting percussion ensemble is the pot-drums or tuned water-pot-drums of the Kalabaris. The Urhobos and Ibos of Nigeria, Ewes in Ghana and Togo, and the Shonas of Zimbabwe share a strong passion for thumb pianos, and other prongophones.

String Ensembles

The main four subclasses of stringed instruments are lutes, lyres, zithers, and harps. There are also instruments that combine the structural characteristics of two subclasses, as in harp-lutes and lyre-zithers1. The lute-harp kora features prominently in the Senegambia region, and is, undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful stinged instruemnets of sub-Saharan Africa2. A very interesting variant of the kora, the seperewa of the Akans of Ghana, is beginning to attract much attention among ethnomusicologists. The Egyptian harp, the bin’t and its variants are found all over North Africa and the northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Lyre and krar ensembles feature prominently in Abyssinian area of Africa. Bowed strings, or fiddles are more common among the Savannah and Sahel regions of Africa, and a few tribes around the Kalahari region of south-central Africa. They range from the one-stringed gonje and masinKo to the multiple-stringed kontingo of the Mandingos.

Wind Ensembles

First of all, African orchestras have no clear distinctions like woodwind and brass. Wind instruments are constructed from virtually every material with which one can manipulate air movement,- Bamboo, grass, animal horns and bones, shells, etc. They are, however, easily classified into whistles, panpipes, flutes, single and double-reed instruments, horns, and trumpets.

Whistles are not common in large orchestras. Flutes range from very simple, non-holed pipes, like the Ethiopian embilta, to complex, many-holed flutes like the Ghanaian Atenteben. They are either end-blown, angular-blown or transverse-blown. The clarinet-ish argul and the oboe-ish zorna feature prominently in northern Africa music.

Ensembles of horns and trumpets are common all over northern West Africa and North Africa. They usually have a combination of instruments that range from the simple-holed (with one or two holes), played in the hocket style, and complex-holed instruments (with three or more holes) for highly advanced technique. An ensemble of the long royal trumpets (kakaki in northern Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso; waza in Sudan and Chad; malakat in Ethiopia) are quite a spectacle during coronations and high-caste ceremonies.

A combination of these ensembles can perform together in an orchestra. Such a large body of musicians, however, is not commonly seen as one unit, and can only be found at very important social functions like festivals or coronations. The smaller ensembles abound at many events. Like in the West, orchestras or ensembles may perform alone or accompany dancers, singers, plays, or dramatic re-enactment. Their feature as multi-instrumental concerti has been preserved by the early African slaves to the Americas and Europe. And their metamorphosis into improvisatory jazz and blues is still a subject of discussion among musicologists around the world. FO.


Echezona, W.W.C: Nigerian Musical Instruments, Apollo Publishers, Nigeria.
Jones, A.M: African Rhythm, Norton.
Jones, D. W: The Classical Style, Oxford Press.
Kebede, Ashenafi: Roots of Black Music, Africa World Press, Inc.1,2
Roberts, John Storm: Black Music of Two World, Schirmer Books.
Zabana & Nketia: African Drum Music, Afram Publications, Ghana.
Photo taken from J.H. Kwabena Nketia’s Music of Africa, Norton.3

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