African Idiophone Instruments

What Are They (Good For)?

The idiophone naturally fascinates us: Like all African percussion instruments, it has that rootsy sound, that ancient look. There's an abuncance of fun hand percussion and shaker percussion in Africa. You can learn about it in the world's music schools - Or by just observing Africa:

What exactly is an idiophone?

African idiophones
African idiophones

The word means "self-sounding" and explains it all: It's the instrument's whole body that resonates without the need of attached membranes (that's a membranophone) or strings (a chordophone).

In Ghana, I often see people play whatever they can find: sticks, tin cans, pots...
Any object that sounds when being struck, shaken, scraped or stamped is a self-sounding instrument. So basically even your clapping hands and stamping feet!

Examples Of Idiophones

There are so many of them that scientists started to categorize. Probably the most relevant categories for Africa are these, each with a few examples:

untuned tuned
primary maracas
thumb piano
secondary djembe shakers
ankle shakers

Primary / Secondary

Primary ones are actively played by a musician through striking, shaking, scraping or stamping. Many of these simple instruments need great skills and practice.

The musician doesn't really play the secondary ones. He just attaches them to his primary instrument or wears them on arms and ankles. Through his movements, they passively add sound to the music.

Tuned / Untuned

Most percussion instruments produce only rhythm (untuned). Some primary instruments though have several pitches and can be tuned to create melody.

Good to know. But what we are really interested in is:

What Are Idiophones Actually Used For?

First of all, they play a significant part in:

Everyday African Life

Can't imagine what that means? Here are some examples:

  • Farmers keep their herds together or chase away wild animals.
  • Street vendors play specific signals to get attention of potential customers. 
  • Fitness groups gather on Sunday mornings for a run through the city streets, motivated and paced by bell rhythms.
  • Kings and priests dramatize their processions and ceremonies with bells and rattles that mark each of their moves.

Apart from that, self-sounding instruments also make great:

Childrens Musical Instruments

Ghanaian kids' favorite toy is the Kosikas. That's surprising, because playing it is quite challenging even for an adult. For our non-African kids, colorful rattles like the Caxixi or a small wooden xylophone are far more suitable.
But even these "toys" are serious instruments in the hands of:

Professional Musicians

In traditional music ensembles, it is always present in one form or another:

The bells are considered the "backbone" of traditional music. Although they don't dictate the pace, they mark the time line that every member of the group follows. It must therefore be played very accurately.

(It's these distinctive sounds of the Atoke or Gankogui etc. that let you immediately recognize a rhythm and it's ethnic origin.)

Secondary rattles and shakers worn by dancers or attached to instruments are responsible for that typical spice and rootsy feel of African music.

Various types of calabash shakers like the Axatse effectively drive the music and turn up the heat with their loud and quick rhythms.


As you see, this type of instrument shouldn't be underestimated. It is an extremely powerful and versatile type of percussion instrument

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Copyright © 2009 - 2011

Download African Music

MP3 Downloads

Browse and enjoy
this vast collection
of the most popular
African MP3 Albums

African Music Safari

learn to play djembe

Play the Djembe
Learn the basics with a djembe instructional DVD for beginners

djembe case

African Drum Bags
Handmade djembe case from West Africa

African Xylophone Music CDs
Xylophone Music CDs