African Percussion Instruments

Understand Their Traditional Use And Purpose

The mysterious, rootsy sounds and looks of African percussion instruments make curious to learn more about where they come from. Below, we'll look at these ethnic instruments in their cultural context.

Nowadays, many African drums, djembes or percussion sets for sale in the West were not made in Africa, even if the label says "African". When looking to purchase, it's hard to tell the difference if you are inexperienced.

Here is where you'll find authentic African instruments to buy. I know they are real, because I was watching the artisans making them in Ghana for years.

Learn About The Different Types Of African Percussion Instruments

For a first quick impression of the vast variety that exists, check this growing list with African names of percussion instruments. But now, let's see some of them in action:

african shakers and rattles
Djembe Shakers

Shakers and rattles

Shakers and rattles play a big role in traditional African religions. They may call spirits in sacred ceremonies or emphasize the words and actions of important people.

In more modern societies though, kids use them as toys and musicians as fun and rootsy percussion instruments.

Some examples of these instruments are djembe shakers, the kosikas, the caxixi, juju shakers, ankle shakers etc.

Read about the use and purpose of the Ewe people's axatse gourd rattles in detail.

african bells
African Bells


Just like the rattles, bells often have ritual or ceremonial functions in traditional societies.

But in neo-traditional music groups, bells are also the backbone of the whole ensemble. Their rhythm often lets you immediately recognize the music's ethnic origin.

Examples are the atoke babana bell, frikywa castenets, dunun bells etc.

Read about the use and purpose of the Ewe people's gankogui double bell in detail.

african xylophone
Gyil Xylophones


There's a surprising variety of African xylophone cultures as it is one of the continents most central instruments. 

Some ethnic groups use it as a means of communication.
An absolutely fascinating example of this is the balafon, which recites the whole history of the Mande people.

Other examples of xylophnes are the gyil, timbila, palaku, shilimba, mbaire or the aso-or-doso.


Thumb pianos

The African thumb piano is deeply rooted in African culture. It appears throughout the continent with different features and names: Mbira, Karimba, Sanza, Prempensua are just a few of them.

The thumb piano even successfully made it into Western culture under the name "Kalimba".
Above instruments are idiophones. (Read this if you're not sure what an idiophone is.)
The following type of instrument also includes membranophones:

african drums
Hand and stick drums

The Drums

Even in the West, we love these instruments so much that they deserve a separate section on this website. Click here for more info on African drums.

The same goes for the most popular of all African drums: the djembe. You can read everything you want to know in my Djembe drum guide. Enjoy!

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