African Musical Instruments & Style
by Christo van Rensburg

Similar musical instruments are found throughout most of black Africa. However, the flora and culture found in any particular region influences the dominance of certain categories of instruments. Drums are for instance more popular in the forest regions of West Africa than in the tree-less savanna areas of southern Africa. Musical instruments often show a close link between sculpture and music.

There is a great deal of homogeneity in the music of this vast continent but it is also clear that there are differences between regions and tribes. The cultures, south of the Sahara, have evidently carried on a lively exchange of music with the inhabitants of the northern part of Africa. There is also a large area of borderline cultures that are related to both the Negro and the North African societies.

Much music is based on speech and the bond between language and music is so intimate that it is actually possible to tune an instrument so that the music it produces is linguistically comprehensible. Because music is a total expression of life, shared by all the senses, different cultures and lifestyles have significant influences on the music. In East Africa, the cultures are complex and revolve around cattle. The Khoi-San area of southern Africa has a simple culture dependent mainly on the nomadic gathering of food. The north-western African coast lacks cattle and is characterised by an elaborate political organisation which, before the imposition of European rule, gave rise to powerful kingdoms. The west coast of Africa between the Khoi-San area and the north-western part has a combination of the east African and north-west African traits. A number of Pygmy tribes are still living in relative isolation in the jungle. The northern part of the continent is largely under the influence of Islamite musical culure. Music within each of these areas is more or less homogeneous, differing from the neighbouring area.

The main characteristics of the west coast are the metronome sense and the accompanying concept of "hot rhythm", the simultaneous use of several meters, and the responsorial form of singing with overlap between leader and chorus. The central African area is distinguished by its great variety of instruments and musical styles and by the emphasis, in polyphony, on the interval of the third. East Africa has, for centuries, been somewhat under Islamite influence, though by no means to as great an extent as the northern half of Africa. Vertical fifths are more prominent here, and rhythmic structure is not so complex, nor are percussion instruments so prominent. The Khoi-San music area is evidently similar in style to East Africa, but has simpler forms and instruments. It contains a good deal of music performed with the hocket technique, as does the Pygmy sub-area of central Africa, which is also characterised by the presence of a vocal technique similar to yodelling.

Editor’s Note: Christo van Rensburg is a freelance writer and Africanist from Australia. References for his article can be found and accessed at his African music webpage:

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