Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Traditional West African Instruments

One of the ways we immerse ourselves into a culture is to listen to its music, traditional and modern. Music is such an important creative expression in all cultures, and I encourage our family to appreciate all types. Throughout the year, we have been listening to West African music every time we eat West African food and work on a craft or activity.  

There are many traditional West African instruments, and I'd like to highlight a few here, because we've come across them often in our exploration. 


The Djembe drum
Photo Credit: Left Cadena Menon; Right Ruff Root Creative (CC adapted into collage)
Whenever there's mention of a workshop or performance of "African drumming" in our area, it is always with a djembe drum, so it was the first instrument we learned about.

The djembe originates from Mali as far back as the 12th century. In many West African countries, it's primarily the instrument used in important celebrations like marriages, baptisms, funerals, circumcisions and harvest festivals. In fact, there's a saying in Mali from which the djembe gets its name: "everyone gather together in peace", ultimately the drum's purpose ("djé" is the verb for "gather" and "bé" translates as "peace" in the Bambara language). Traditionally, the djembe rhythms corresponded to certain dances for specific occasions, with each rhythm having a particular time and place. These days, djembe music is played at a wide range of events. It does, generally, continue to be a communal event expecting participation from those gathered - whether by clapping, singing and/or dancing.

For its size, the djembe is an unusually loud drum that plays a wide range of notes. It's also one of the few, among hundreds of drums in West Africa, that is played with both bare hands. It's played with the bottom tilted because the sound comes out of the bottom. It's traditionally carved out of one piece of wood, and covered most commonly with goatskin. It is said that it contains three spirits: the spirit of the tree it was carved from, the spirit of the animal whose skin covers the head, and the spirit of the drum maker. 

You can hear a piece that uses djembe as the primary instrument in this video - though it's 9 min long, you can get a sense of the sound after a minute or two. If you enjoy traditional drumming, keep listening, the tempo really accelerates and sounds great.


Shekeres - gourd rattles
Photo credit: North Charleston (CC)
The shekere (pronounced SHAY-kuh-ray) originates from West Africa and is now used in the Americas and Caribbean as well. It's a handmade rattle made from hollowed out, and dried up gourds and covered on the outside with a netting of beads, seeds and shells. It goes by different names and comes in many shapes and sizes - the size and shape determines the sound and volume of the instrument. It's traditionally played as an accompaniment to drumming and dance. It's played by shaking it or slapping it against the hands. 

You can hear how great the shekere sounds being played here


Child playing the balafon in The GambiaPhoto Credit: M. Meijerink (CC)

The balafon is a wooden xylophone, mounted on a bamboo frame. There is a calabash (gourd) under each slat that's used as a sound box, and generally plays 18 - 21 notes. According to the oral history of griots, this instrument originated in Mali in the 12th century. 

In some cultures, the balafon is considered a sacred instrument that can only be played at certain events (royal celebrations, marriages, funerals) by specially trained religious caste members. It's also one of the instruments associated with griots, the oral historians of West Africa, used while singing or storytelling.

You can here the balafon being played here.


A koraPhoto Credit: Daniel Bracchetti (CC)

The Kora is a 21 string harp-lute made from a calabash gourd cut in half and covered with cow skin. Kora players have traditionally come from griot families, and the instrument is still strongly associated with griots. The kora is often played while telling and singing their stories. 

You can listen to the kora being played here
You can listen to a great piece that uses the Kora and the Balafon here
And here's a musical piece that features the balafon, djembe and shekere

Fun Fact: A mark of the cultural importance of these instruments can be found in the title of the Senegalese National Anthem: Pincez Tous vos Koras, Frappez les Balafons which translates to "Everyone Strum Your Koras, Strike the Balafons".

You can learn more about griots and their roles in West African society in our earlier post here

Photo credit for title image as follows, clockwise from top left: Shekere by Astor Rabuco; Balafon by Samm Bennett; Djembe by Shawn Econo; Kora by Gilmoth Gil. Photos adapted into collage (CC).


  1. I've got a Djembe drum! I never knew where it came from as I got it from a charity shop. Interesting!
    I'm going to miss your West Africa posts!


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