Many African societies utilize a number of instruments falling into the group known as aerophones. In Africa three broad groups of aerophones are recognized: (1) flutes, (2) reed pipes and (3) trumpets and horns.
Although flutes may be made from a husk of cane or the end of an animal horn or gourd, the most common material in use to make flutes is bamboo. They may be open-ended or closed, they may be played in the vertical or horizontal (transverse) positions. Although most African flutes are made with a number of holes (from two to six), some flutes are made with a single hole. A number of these flutes are made so that the technique of melodic playing known as hocket can be employed. Using the hocket technique melodies are formed by each flute sounding single tones in a melodic chain.
Trumpets and horns are made from the horns of many animals which include elephant tusks and are used in various ensembles. Here again, instruments are often arranged in families. Babembe horns are made in human likeness in the Congo. In the case of the Babembe horns, a dorsal opening is cut in the back of each likeness and the player buzzes his/her lips to create a single tone.
Trumpets are played to convey signals and/or specific verbal messages and are heard alone, in duet or in large ensembles. Compositions for large ensemble very often follow the call and response process; therefore, usually beginning with the sound of a single "call" followed by its musical "response." The call and response process is conversational in nature. It uses lively exchanges of different voices and instrumental parts, which interact with each other based upon the stating of individual rhythms or melodic phrases and the repetition of those rhythms of phrases by an individual or another musical group.
String instruments (chordophones) are numerous and widespread in Africa. No chordophone, however, is more numerous and widespread than the musical bow. The earth bow, the mouth bow and the resonator-bow are the principle types of musical bows; however, P.R. Kirby lists eight unique varieties.
"The West African Kora is a lute-like instrument made from a natural calabash gourd cut in half, partially covered with cow skin and a hardwood post running through it. 21 fishing line strings run along the instruments length and over a bridge resting on the skin and are split into 2 planes, 22 and 25 string regional variations are often found.
The building process takes about a month and is hard work, often taking the strength of several men to stretch the skin over the instrument. The player supports the Kora infront of him with the 3rd, 4th and 5th fingers and plucks the strings with the thumb and forefingers of both hands. The technique used is intricate and almost harp-like mixed with flamenco. The tone produced is brilliant and plucky with a range of just over 3.5 octaves."
The earth bow is made simply. A flexible pole is planted in the ground and bent roughly at an angle to the ground. To the end of the pole is attached a string and the other end of the string is then attached to a stone, a piece of bark or a small piece of wood which is then planted in a hole dug in the ground. The hole in the ground acts as a resonator and the magic sound emanates from the recesses of the earth. This instrument, although considered a toy in northern Ghana and Uganda, is often used in ceremonies involving magic.
The mouth bow is an instrument whereby a string is tied to both ends of a flexible pole and the pole is pulled into an arch shape to form a bow with the string. The string is held in the mouth and the string is struck on a spot along its length. The cavity of the mouth is shaped to emphasize various partials which are produced by the string naturally when the string is struck. The mouth cavity is also the cause of a degree of amplification of the original sound of the struck string.
The resonator-bow is a form of the mouth bow to the middle of which a calabash resonator is attached. In Rwanda this instrument is known as Munahi. In other regions of Africa the resonator-bow is known by other names. In Dahomey it is called Tiepore and in Madagascar it is known as Jejolava.
The zither is a chordophone and there are numerous varieties. Among these are the raft or Inanga zither from Burundi, the tubular or Valiha zither from Malagasy and the harp or Mvet zither from Cameroon. The distinguishing feature of the zither is the horizontal positioning of the strings.
The Inanga zither is shaped like a raft or an elongated bowl. The strings are strung from end to end and held in place by sharp notches cut in the ends of the "raft". The long, continuous strings are parallel and are wide enough apart so the fingers may pluck the strings using a strong stroke which allows for a rather loud sound.
On the island of Madagascar the Valiha is the most common instrument and is often referred to as the national instrument. The instrument is made by arranging stretched strings longitudinally around a large bamboo tube. "This type of Valiha is made by cutting a length of bamboo with a node at each end. A number of incisions are made along the entire length of the soft outer bark of the tube in order to produce a series of very narrow strips. These are carefully detached from the body of the instrument except at the two ends where they are left attached to the nodes. The whole instrument is then left to dry in the sun. When it is ready, the Valiha is tuned by inserting two small bridges under each string. The distance between the bridges can be regulated to produce different notes."
For purposes of categorization, the Mvet zither may also be considered a harp-zither. The strings of the zither are stretched over a raffia-palm stalk and raised above a bridge placed at the center of the stalk. The performer holds the resonating gourd to the body so the body acts as an additional resonator to the gourd. This instrument is used to accompany singing and the telling of legends many of which may last from dusk to dawn the next day. An example of a story that might be accompanied by the Mvet follows.
"Then they came to the Tribe-of-Visions Commanded by Ondo-Minko-M-Obiang r. . .r. . .r. . .r . . (sound of a marching army) And then - just imagine! Ondo-Minko-M-Obiang the crocodile-man Began shouting at the top of his voice: 'The idiots! Where on earth are they going? Look at the way they march! Hey! Stop! (Then, leaping forward): Kilit! Vivm! Hi! (onomatopoeia) He barred the road to the army And challenged Ondo-Zogo: 'What's happening? Where are you going?' And Ondo-Zogo of the Tribe-of-the-Strong-Hands Replied: 'We are going to the land of Engong-Nzok To see Mobege, the brother of Mba, from the village of Fatu-Fe-Meneno.' (Ondo-Minko-M-Obiang): 'Who is your chief?' (Ondo-Zogo): 'Ovang-Obam-O-Ndong Of the Tribe-of-the-Fog.' And do you know what happened next? This crocodile-man Ondo-Minko-M-Obiang Ordered: 'You shall not pass!' And striking his chest with a resounding blow He drew from his mouth a great crocodile stone, Which he threw with all his might In Ondo-Zogo's face, where it broke. Ondo-Zogo of the Tribe-of-the-Strong-Hands Staggered like someone about to fall But, listen carefully, in spite of that he straightened up, Brandished the withered arm he carried as a weapon . . . And struck Ondo-Minko-M-Obiang A violent blow on the mouth: Tos! (onomatopoeia) So hard that all his teeth fell out: Folot - Folot (onomatopoeia) And then - would you believe it? - Ondo-Minko-M-Obiang just stood there With his teeth in his hand Watching the column pass by. Yi,yi,yi.yi (laughter)"
Electrophones, of course, are products of 20th century electrical technology. An electrophone is created by adding electric amplification to any of the other classes of instruments - idiophones, membranophones, aerophones and chordophones. Electric amplification of instruments occurs mainly in urban regions of the continent.
In the Juju music of many urban populations of Black Africa, electrophones-principally guitars-are heard and broadcast over radio and television and recorded using the most sophisticated digital recording technology. It is a genre of African music arising from the synthesis of many aspects of the Black African musical heritage with influences from around the world including America.
In Black Africa, as in other societies in the World, music is used as a tool for vendors selling their wares. In Western societies, 'mood' music is used in supermarkets and many other small and large outlets for many types of merchandise as a means to sooth the emotions of shoppers and put them in the frame of mind to buy the wares under scrutiny.
Western advertisers on all broadcast media know the value of using music to accompany spoken dialogue and pictures as a means of capturing the audience's attention and enlisting their 'good feelings' toward the product(s) being advertised.
African salespersons use music to attract a crowd and hold the attention of the crowd while the vendor sings the praises of his wares in this 'vendor's theater' of direct marketing. This 'minimarket' in Black Africa is indicative of the same use to which music is put in American supermarkets.
It is the common perception in the West that a griot is a witch doctor or sorcerer. Although some Griots are known to dabble in witchcraft, the word Griot is used throughout West Africa to mean a professional musician and historian. The Griot seems to be grossly misunderstood in the West. The French novelist, Pierre Loti, in his Roman d'un Spahi has this appraisal of the Griot: "Griots are the most philosophical and the laziest people in the world. They lead a nomadic life and never worry about tomorrow". Francis Bebey, in his book African Music, comments upon the observation: "This rather uncharitable view does at least have the merit of placing the griot in his true perspective in time; he is more concerned with the past than with the future. By the past, we mean not only the history of his people - its kings and ancestors, and the genealogy of its great men - but also, the wisdom of its philosophers, its corporate ethics and generosity of spirit, its thought-provoking riddles, and the ancestral proverbs that serve as a reminder that everything on earth is destined to pass, just as time itself passes."
Music and magic are inextricably linked in Black African society. Mr. Hugo Zemp's account of a story relayed to him by a semiprofessional harp-lute player from the Ivory Coast illustrates this point:
". . .I was working at my loom one day as usual, when suddenly I saw two dwarf-genii, who said to me, 'Get up! Go home and hang yourself.' None of the other weavers could see them. I left the loom and went home. I found a length of rope, attached it to a roof-beam and hanged myself. Some of the villagers had followed me home, so they cut the rope and then went to consult a soothsayer. He told them that in the past some of my relatives had been harp-lute players and unless I continued the tradition I was doomed to die. There had been no harp-lute player in our village since my father's brother died. My relatives found the instrument, which had not been touched since my uncle's death, and sacrificed a chicken. Then I set about learning to play the harp-lute. As soon as it became known that I had been ordered to play the harp-lute the people of all the neighbouring villages in the district began inviting me to play for them and I received many presents. Sometimes I was away travelling for weeks at a stretch. But during the farming season I always stayed at home to work on my plantation."9
This dream or 'supernatural' vision prompted this worker to become one of the most celebrated harp-lute players in his region. There is, in Black African culture, a magical relationship between the musician and her/his music. After all, in English, the words music and magic are very similar in spelling. This similarity may be more than mere coincidence.
The power of music is often put to use in the healing arts of Black African society. It is only recently, within the last 50 years, that Western societies have researched the power music has with respect to its ability to offer therapeutic treatment for a long list of human ailments. At this writing a voluminous body of scientific research has contributed to the creation of an entirely new field of human endeavor unknown in the West 60 years ago. This field of Music Therapy is still viewed by many, even in the West, in much the same way the West views the African Griot. The harp is associated with medicinal value in many parts of Africa and is 'invariably associated with the powers of healing that are granted by spirits. . .Many harp-lute players are also soothsayers or healers.'
African music is a communal art and almost everyone in the community participates in the making of music and dance in one form or another. It is every Black African's birthright to participate in the creation and performance of music dance for the benefit of themselves as well as the entire community and continent.
A Musical Plea for African Unity
African Music Glossary of Terms
African Music and Drumming Resources on the Web