Early African music

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

Early African music: Rock gong from Sudan (Tim Karberg/Westfalische Wilhelms-Universitat Munster)

Rock gongs and flutes

One of the earliest kinds of musical instrument in Africa was the rock gong. A rock gong is a big curved rock. You strike it with smaller rocks to make a loud sound. You could hear a rock gong from very far away. Striking the gong in different places created different tones. People may have used rock gongs for signalling as well as for music. They used rock gongs in Sudan for thousands of years. Probably early African musicians also used bone flutes and simple bows (like the bow of a bow and arrow).


A Mbira – you play it by pushing down the keys.

Drums and trumpets

By about 3000 BC, people in Africa were using wood and leather drums. You could carry drums around from place to place, so they were more convenient than rock gongs. People kept on playing wood and bone flutes, too. In Egypt, where metal was used earlier, people started to play bronze trumpets.

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

Mbira and kalinda music

The mbira and kalinda

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

Playing the ngoni

Xylophones and stringed instruments – 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 called ngoni. Maybe these developed from the bow and arrow. West African people may have independently invented stringed instruments . Or Islamic traders may have brought the idea to East Africa. 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 articlein the Encyclopedia Britannica.

More about African Art
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By |2018-04-10T22:36:16+00:00May 19th, 2017|Africa, Art|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Early African music. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 19, 2017. Web. December 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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