West African Music

Pestles against mortars, axes against wood, the rattling of loom shuttles, and the gasps of billows all set the tempo, the cadenced backdrop, for traditional West African music. And its distinctive sensibilities— its polyrhythmic textures, its call and response mechanisms, its bent tonalities — have shaped musical aesthetics well-beyond its borders.

Painting of griots playing West African Instruments: horns, balafon, djembés, koras, etc.
“Damba Music Makers” by Ghanaian artist Leopold Twum.

West African Instruments

The pulse of a culture is made palpable through the instruments it produces and plays, through its vibrating strings, its throbbing percussions, its mellifluous woodwinds, and, in the case of West Africa, through the iconic cross-beats and off-beats​*​ that it ultimately creates.

Nature provides West Africa with the perfect amplifier: the acoustic resonance of a hollowed-out calabash intensifies the vibrations of the Mandé kora, a double-bridged harp, the Jola akonting, a banjo-like lute, the Hausa goje, a bowed, two-stringed fiddle, or Dagaaba, Sambla and Malinké xylophones, the gyil, baan, and balafon respectively.  

The Kora

Photograph of a Mandé Kora, a string West African instrument made out of a calabash.
The Mandé Kora. Image: Spot On Mali Music.
Kora Solo / Native Instruments​2​

The Balafon

Photograph of a Malinké balafon xylophone, a percussive instrument of West Africa.
The Malinké Balafon. Image: Spot On Mali Music.
The Balafon / Native Instruments​2​

Even the naturally-resonant hollow of a conical vine found in the Fouta Djalon highlands of Guinea anticipates, intrinsically, the multiphonics of a tambin, the flute of the Fula.

The Tambin

Photograph of several Fula tambins or flutes, West African wind instruments.
The Fula Tambin. Image: Kassa Flutes.
Traditional Ensemble: the n’goni, balafon, and Fula flute / Native Instruments​2​

Meanwhile, the tension of goat or antelope skin, stretched, pegged, and interlaced to a hardwood shell, sets the timbre and tone of the Ashanti atumpan, talking drums, of the traditionally ceremonial, double-headed Yoruba batá, or of the iconic, crowd-assembling djembé [Bambara: djè, “gather”; bɛɛ, “all”].

The Rhythm of the Drums

Photograph of West African percussive instruments: balafon, djembé and other drums.
Percussion. Image: African Music Safari.
The Djembé and the mid-sized base drum, the Sangba / Native Instruments​2​

Then impressive idiophones like the Beninese alounloun, an iron and ringed stamping stick, the Yoruba shekere, a cowrie-covered gourd-shaker, or the clanging gankogui of the Ewe chime in. Strapped to ankles, clenched in hands —scraped, struck, stamped, or shaken — the rattles, clappers, gongs, and bells​†​ of West Africa add elaborate layers of “contrasting rhythmic patterns representing the very complex fabric of life itself”.​1​


Forged iron Ewe Gankogui Bells. Dr. Clave.
Traditional West African Percussions: bass drums, bells, djembés / Native Instruments​2​

Life, itself, vibrates with conflicting rhythms. The unexpected metrical accents of West African music and the characteristic instruments and voices that create them, amplify this, as if powerful, far-ranging, cross-generational resonators themselves.

  1. ​*​
    The characteristic syncopation of West African music involves a shifting of the normal accent, unexpectedly stressing what is typically an unaccented beat.
  2. ​†​
    [Video] Bells, from Forge to Festival. See our Blacksmith Article.

From the integral nature of West African rhythm to the resonating voice of the griot, our exploration into the soundscape, unique to this region of the world, continues:

Sources and Further Reading

  1. 1.
    Peñalosa D, Greenwood P. The Clave Matrix: Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA, USA: Bembe Books; 2012.
  2. 2.
    Recorded and Sampled, the Sounds of Traditional West Africa. Native Instruments. https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/world/west-africa/.