What did early African music sound like?
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Early African Music

Sudan rock gong
Rock gong from Sudan
(Tim Karberg/Westfalische Wilhelms-Universitat Munster)

One of the earliest kinds of musical instrument in Africa was the rock gong, which is a big curved rock. You strike it with smaller rocks to make a loud sound that could be heard for a long distance. Striking the gong in different places created different tones. Rock gongs could have been used for signalling as well as for music. People used rock gongs in Sudan for thousands of years. Probably they also used bone flutes and simple bows (like the bow of a bow and arrow) to produce music.


Mbira

By about 3000 BC, people in Africa were using wood and leather drums that you could carry around. They continued to play wood and bone flutes, too. In Egypt, where metal was used earlier, they began to play bronze trumpets as well.


Mbira and kalinda music

By about 550 AD, Yared, a musician in Ethiopia, is said to have worked out a way to write down the Christian music he wrote for his church.

Around 700 AD, African musicians in the Zambezi valley (southern Zambia) invented the mbira, which relies on vibrating iron keys to produce different tones. Gradually people in other parts of Africa also began to use the mbira, and new instruments based on the mbira like the kalinda.


Playing the ngoni

By the 1300s AD musicians in West Africa, in the Mande kingdom, were playing xylophones, as Ibn Battuta tells us. Ibn Battuta also mentions having seen stringed instruments, maybe developed from the bow and arrow, like the ngoni. Stringed instruments could have been independently invented in West Africa, or they may have been brought by Islamic traders. The new bowed instruments from Central Asia hadn't yet reached West Africa.

Learn by doing: play a mbira if you can get one, or a xylophone
More about African art

Bibliography and further reading about African music:

Or check out this African music article in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

More about African Art
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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