Facts on African Instruments

Updated November 21, 2016

African musical instruments are not only impressive pieces of craftsmanship, but they also create the music that has shaped the lives and cultures of ethnic groups throughout the vast continent of Africa.


For centuries, African musical instruments have played an important social role in regions throughout the continent. As early as the 1200s, various African tribes and ethnic groups used handmade instruments to commemorate important events such as childbirth and marriage.


Across these different regions, African instruments are generally traditional wood-carved pieces that are used during communal celebrations and ceremonies.


The most commonly used African instruments include the lute or African guitar, armpit drums made of wood and animal skin, ivory horns, xylophones using gourds also known as balafons, and small thumb pianos called sanzas.


African instruments are usually made out of finished wood or bamboo pieces, as well as animal parts such as skins for drums and elephant tusks for horns.


Instruments from Africa are primarily small to medium in size, as they are designed to be easily carried--sometimes across great distances--by hand or under the armpit.

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