Drumming is synonymous with the audible heartbeat of Africa. When most people think of African drumming they generally think of the djembe, a goblet-shaped wooden frame covered with a taut animal skin. Played by hand, it is undoubtedly a beguiling instrument and, in a facilitated group session, it is a fun and interactive precursor to dining at GOLD Restaurant. Some say it is the most popular instrument to be played outside of Africa.
While the djembe has become a bit of a celebrity in various parts of the world there are numerous lesser-known but no less intriguing African instruments. These include, among others, the udu, algaita and the mbira.
How to play the water jug
The Igbo (Ibo) people of Nigeria are famously immortalised in Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart. Udu from the Igbo language means vessel and this ceremonial instrument is in fact a water jug, usually made from clay, but with another hole in the side. Played by hand, more often by Igbo women, a bass sound is produced by rapidly hitting the bigger of the two holes. Authentic udus are not easily sourced but they are reproduced and used by percussionists around the world in numerous music genres.
Ever seen or heard an African oboe?
The African oboe is not really an oboe but there are certain similarities. The most obvious of these is that both of these exceptional instruments are double-reed woodwinds. Much like the oboe two flattened blades of bamboo vibrate against one another to produce sound. Found mainly in West Africa, particularly Nigeria, the African oboe or algaita comes with a wider, trumpet-like bell opening at its base. Moreover, instead of oboe finger keys the algaita has open holes along its length.
Thumb piano with teeth
The mbira is a type of lamellophone or thumb piano. “Lamella” is the Latin word for “plate” and “phone” is Greek for “sound”. The mbira consists of rows of metal strips of varied lengths on a resonator, usually a gourd (dried shell of a calabash). Thumb-plucking the ends of the strips produces its delicate and distinctive sound.
The African continent is home to as many musical instruments from wind and string to percussion as it has countries, regions and tribal cultures even. While drumming is pivotal to African music there are countless instruments that have been adapted over time and through migration to create the exciting and unique sounds for which Africa is well known.