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Documenting musical instruments of Northern Nigerian


Omotayo Moyomola Adeboye


Nigeria is a country greatly diversified in outlook and cultural inclinations. The music tradition in Nigeria is dated to a long time in history with information on it very scanty and almost unavailable, with most of the writings that can be seen written by foreigners who are explorers, colonial officers and sometimes ethnologists and are aliens to the culture and the tradition. Therefore, the writings are usually fragmentary and not well detailed. Some few Nigeria writers, out of convenience concentrated efforts on specific instruments without linking it with others around them. Thus in discussing the above topic, we might not be able to exhaust all the musical instruments in the Northern area of the country.
The various musical instruments can be generally grouped under four main organological categories. These are: Idiophones; Membranophones; Aerophones; and Chordophones

These are the most widespread of all the musical instrument prevalent in Nigeria and are made from such materials as gourd, wood, metal and cane to mention a few. They can be grouped under two major categories, those that are rhythmic and those that combine both melodic and rhythmic components. Rhythmic idiophones include instruments that are shaken, struck, scraped or stamped to produce the required rhythm. They include rattles that are sometimes played as part of musical ensembles and are either stuck or shaken directly. Idiophones are used principally for making varieties of simple and complex rhythms. Under the example of idiophones are xylophones and log-drums. An example is the Kundung – the xylophone of the Berom people of the Plateau State.

The Kundung are made up of carefully and neatly shaped cow horns which serve as resonators. Pieces of wooden slabs are cut, died and loosely woven on a supporting piece of wood. Cow horns graduated in size in relation to pitches of the slab are fitted on the other side of the wood, one for each wooden slabs and with a capping of the tip of the horns with cobwebs, the instrument is set. The number of horns varies from 5 – 15 while the no of slab is usually 7 but on larger instruments it varies 7 – 21 depending on the speech tone or the skills of the xylophonist. Some horns could be cut and joined to others to increase their volumes in the mechanism of sound production. Slabs which are carefully graded in weight and length are placed horizontally on each of the horns, the longer horns take the thinner but longer slabs while the smaller horns take the thicker and shorter slabs. A long plank to accommodate the number of horns is then used, with each horns fitting into a clearly cut hole on the plank.

Between each horn are slender sticks by which the slabs are placed and carefully held to the plank by strings. Resounding friction are created as the rubber stick header which are the beaters hit each slab to produce sound. Normally the xylophone performs a double musical function, melody and rhythmic with the neutral notes fulfilling the rhythmic function of the instrument. The number of slabs that makes up a xylophone differs according to the function of the xylophone in music. For purely rhythmic function, two – one slab xylophones are used but for purely melodic function may number from eight – fourteen.

It is basically played as solo instrument though can be played in combination with other instruments for entertainment at social functions, during harvest seasons and features prominently during marriage and naming ceremonies. It also provides music at little traditional drinking liquor parlour (Burukutu) and children’s moon light playgrounds. Usually no formal training is given to those that play the instrument but learning is done through careful observation when either the instrument is being made or tuned.


These are instruments on which sound is produced through the vibration of membranes and they constitute a very important part of this discussion. Under this category are the different drums, which are of divers shape, size and functions.
Drums are most times carved out of solid logs of wood and covered with skins of various animals but other materials such as gourd, earthen ware, tins etc. are used. While some can only produce a pitch others are constructed in a way to produce varied pitches of tuned instruments. Some are single headed, opened at one end and closed at the other, while others are double-headed where both heads are covered with skin, either one of the two or both heads are played. The skin of the drum itself may be glued, nailed or suspended by pegs or tension throngs.

Drums are either struck with sticks, bare hand or combination of both. If the skin of a drum slackens, its pegs are further knocked in or else it is held over fire for a few seconds until it becomes taut.
Among the Hausa, there are many drums differing in size, shape and function. We have the small drum known as Kalangu or Kazagi which is shaped like an hour-glass, usually tucked under the arm beaten with a short, bent drumstick. Another one is the “Kotso” single membrane diaphragm shaped usually strummed with slender artistic findings. Another is the “Dundufu”. These are long bulbous or log-like drums, usually slung round the neck or played seated and beaten thunderously on one or both ends with the palms. Sometimes, they are played, marching in a procession or mounted on a camel.

Another one is the “tanbari” which are strictly personal and ceremonial and are usually used by the royal processions of Emirs and Chiefs. Another one is the small common drum known as “manga” usually featuring in all occasions beaten all seasons for one things or the other, to attract a crowd to showmen performing area or to encourage score of youths welding their holes in unison as they cultivate farm in a communal “gayga”.
Basically, drums are used to summon people to councils, warned then of the approach of danger, for sending war signals, for communication e.g. news from the outside world, provide a rhythm for their dances during entertainments and add dignity and solemnity to traditional and religious ceremonies. The art of drum does not need any formal training but remains in the family, as a skill handed on from father to son, e.g. Yoruba families of “Ayan”.

Aerophones or Wind Instruments

These are instruments on which sound is produced through the vibration of a column of air. They are made from different materials ranging from animal horns, elephant tusks, bones, to calabash, wood, bamboo canes and grass stalks. These materials are usually carved and shaped to culturally accepted forms. The material of which the instrument is made determines the instrument’s music as well as the cultural function.

The rudimentary form of most wind instrument makes their standardization, an extremely difficult task because their tune is subject to variation with the strength of wind velocity and the position of the lips or mouth of the player over the orifice. The known aerophones include flutes, pipes, horns and trumpet, but the commonest among the Northerners are the horns and the trumpet. These two resembles and can only be differentiated through the material from which they are constructed, the manner of playing and the type of sound each produce. Horns include those made from elephant tusks, gourd or bamboo. They are found in varying sizes – long, medium and short. Horns are side blown while trumpets may be either side blown or end blown. Horns features prominently during state occasions in the Northern Nigerian. Often, it is believed that large and special horn should be blown to greet a notable person, with the emphasis being ion the length.

Also, another royal musical instrument found in the North, is the “Kakaki” which is an Hausa term for a long trumpet – like instrument made of metal or wood and usually played by body guards in the Emir’s presence. According to a writer Shaeffner – long trumpets along with drums form “insignia” (mark of honour) of kingship. Long horns were known to have been first used in Kano in the 14th century (1387 – 1343) in the reign of Sarki Jsania of Kano.
It is usually used for announcements, to send war signals as a representation of power and authority and also blown to mark the proclamation of a new Sultan. Another wind instrument of the North is the “algaita” which has been called “the bag pipes of the North”.

It is sometimes described as a horn but is an Oboe having round circular reed fixed beyond the round metal end. The instrument is usually carried in a leather container. The player blows out his cheeks when playing it and the sound is extremely shrill and rather horrific. It was used in earlier days as an inspiration for war and presently played on all state and ceremonial occasions.

Another Hausa wind instrument is the “Udu” which is a pot drum whose sound emanates from striking the side hole with one palm and the top hole with a piece of hide or even another palm alternatively. Another example is called the “Shantu” which are simply elongated gourds with a hole on each end, and beautifully decorated with designs. They are made to produce sound by striking with the left hand one open end against bare flesh of the thigh of the player while the right hand cups the hole of the other end. They are exclusively used by newly wedded women in the harem to entertain their husbands. Mostly, aerophones are used in instrumental ensembles or as solo instruments to accompany praise singing and dances, particularly to direct dancers as to change and accentuation of dance movements. As solo instruments, they are used for signalling and communication.

Chordophones or Stringed Instruments

These are instruments made to produce sounds through in vibration of strings. These are more common in the area of discussion than in any other part of the country. The most common ones are the bows and lutes. Bows include mouth bows and monochord which usually have calabash as resonators.

Lutes are instruments with strings being parallel to the sound table. Leather is usually used to hold the strings to the neck of the lute. It is the leather that is used for tuning the instrument. The strings are tightened or loosened for obtaining the desired pitch. When the resonator box is made of calabash, half or three quarters of it is used. A wooden board nailed to the calabash, covers the top of the calabash and the strings are usually mounted on the board. They are of various sizes and shapes, having from one to seven strings and are either plucked, strummed or bowed.

The best example of a lute is the “Molo”. A wooden head is hollowed out of a solid piece into a trough-like shape. Leather is stretched over the top, bound on with interwoven leather thongs. From the edge of the hole cut at the bottom end of this resonator, run three strings. Two are attached by leather thongs to the top of the stem and the short low string about half way down. The strings are tuned by pulling them up on the stem. Sometimes they are hung with shells, seeds and other percussion devices. The player can also at intervals tap the resonator while playing with a metal capped finger, to give a one-man orchestra.

Another lute is known as “gurmi”, this is very popular among the Hausas. The head is an almost round, highly polished calabash decorated elaborately with designs. It is a pieced lute, the handle running through the head i.e. the calabash with the three strings fastened to either end. The top of the calabash is usually covered with lizard skin. The bridge is designed with a short section of bamboo filled with lengths or sticks which vibrate and tuning is accomplished in the same way as “Molo”. Another string instrument of the Northern people is the “Goge”. It is a delightfully delicate one stringed violin/fiddle. The head is a half calabash covered with lizard skin and horse hair string is stretched from the head to the end of the handle. The bow is also of horse hair attached to a curved stick. Friction is obtained by rubbing the bow with beeswax. It is played on an open string, with the head down wards, resting on the knee.
Chordophones are Solo instruments but can provide accompaniment to vocal music.


The above is by no means exhaustive, it is almost impossible for one to know all the musical instruments prevalent in the area under discussion since it has so many ethnic groups with divergent traditions and way of life. But the fact remains that Northern people have a wealth of instrumental resources which if well-developed can compare adequately with any modern sophisticated musical instruments.


Most of the instruments are made of wooden materials which are perishable and susceptible to attacks by termites and ants. Leather drums under certain climatic conditions gets out of tune and there is no scientific way of turning than firing and sunning. Chords instruments are either made of horse hair, wire or sometimes animal skin. It is needed that efforts be directed towards trying other materials for better standardization and quality of craftsmanship or the instruments.

Adeboye (Mrs) is Curator, National Museum Lagos

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