Other Musical Instruments
To avoid straying from the main theme on the pages about the kora, this page is to illustrate the other instruments mentioned on this site apart from the kora. Although not originally an African instrument, we start with the oud, simply because it was our introduction to some beautiful music from North Africa, which had led us to explore further south.
When we first started to look at the various instruments found in Mali and other Mandinka areas, we we noted the similarities in those made using the calabash. However, even those of the same type may have variations both in the shape and construction of the instruments and the way they are played. On closer inspection the differences become clear. The Mandingka stringed instruments are usually accompanied by singing and storytelling and are less likely to be used in pure instrumental performances, which are now common with the kora. Although the latter was our main interest, we feel that we should not miss the opportunity to cover some of the other aspects of the world of music created by the Mandinka and related cultures.
The music of the oud played by Dhafer Youssef, the Tunisian virtuoso oud player, who had recorded a work called Birds Requiem, gained my attention many years ago. This was thanks to a friend’s recommendation, when I had mentioned that I liked the singing of Souad Massi a singer of Berber descent from Algeria. The oud is well known in Middle Eastern countries and probably spread across the Maghreb in the 7th century. This relative of the lute, that we know in the West, was described in detail as early as the 9th century by an Arabian philosopher. The name presumably comes from the Arabic: العود (al-ʿūd), which denotes a thin strip of wood, as is used in its construction and distinguishing it from other similar instruments of the time. With its origins perhaps in Central Asia over a thousand years ago, this instrument has evolved over the centuries. We do not feel competent to comment here on this beautiful instrument, other than to extol some of the music we have heard from it.
The Jali Ngoni
The traditional ngoni is usually made of wood and has four strings. It is a very important instrument in the Mandinka culture and may be considered the instrument most commonly used by a jali. There are other instruments carrying the name and some like the donso ngoni and the kamale ngoni use a calabash and, at first sight, look more like the kora. The jali ngoni can be traced back further than the kora and its use was reported as early as the 13th century. The late Malian musician Ali Farka Touré played the jali ngoni and other traditional instruments, but is more famous for his guitar playing. On some tours he was joined by Bassekou Kouyaté, who is now considered the foremost ngonifola or ngoni player. The traditional instrument has four strings. However, Bassekou related, how he had increased the number of strings to get more range such as the one illustrated here. His performances (see video below) are enthusiastically welcomed by Western audiences.
The Bass Ngoni
The bass ngoni appears to be a modern development and is seen less frequently. Unlike the other larger instruments bearing the name ngoni, it follows the shape and general construction of the small jali ngoni. The best picture we could find shows a well known player, Mamadou Kouyaté, who is the son of Bassekou Kouyaté. He plays in the band formed by his father, known as Ngoni Ba, that is shown here.
Bassekou Kouyaté and the Ngoni Ba Band
The Donso Ngoni and the Kamale Ngoni
As instruments are being increasingly used for purposes that now differ from past times, it is difficult to ascertain just how they are considered by their original creators and players. The word donso means hunting and the donso ngoni was primarily used in ceremonies to build up enthusiasm in the hunters, when preparing to go out to seek their prey. Such performances, though exiting and interesting, are certainly not relaxing. Presumably this instrument is not used by jalis. This ngoni is made using a calabash and has six strings and a nyenyemo, the strip of metal with small rings that vibrates in sympathy with the strings, placed at the very top of the neck.
The kamale ngoni, appears to be an instrument developed in the 1960’s from the the donso ngoni by adding more strings. The name means young man’s ngoni and it may be played by some jalis. Note that it lacks the nyenyemo. Although it looks similar to a kora and has more strings than the donso ngoni, with between 8 to 13 strings, it still has a smaller range than the kora. Some players can produce beautiful performances with the instrument and their singing, as in the performance of Adama Kamissoko from Mali shown below.
Adama Kamissoko playing the kamale ngoni
The bolon like the donso ngoni, has a body made from a calabash, but has a curved neck and only three or four strings. It will have a nyenyemo, the strip of metal with small rings that vibrates at the top of the neck. However, the picture here appears to be of a newly made instrument and is missing the nyenyemo. The bolon was the instrument played when men were preparing for battle and like the hunting ngoni is associated with the spilling of blood. The performances that we have seen were very loud and used a lot of percussive strikes on the body. Also, like the performances using the donso ngoni, the accompanying singing is strident and stirring.
The bala is a wooden percussion idiophone, similar to the xylophone. It has between 16 and 27 keys, and is used to play melodic tunes. The fixed-key bala has keys suspended by leather straps, just above a wooden frame, under which are hung calabash gourd resonators graduated in size. A small hole in each gourd is covered with a thin membrane to increase resonance. It is usually played with two rubber-covered mallets, while seated on a low stool. According to the Manding history, narrated by the jalis, it originated in Mali and, like the ngoni, has been played since the 13th century. Its playing is important at religious ceremonies and special occasions and, in the past, only certain people were allowed to play it. At the hands of skilled players it is very enjoyable to listen to.
Aly Keita and Gert Kilian play a bala duet
A jembe often spelled djembé, is carved from a single log of hardwood and lenke wood (Afzelia africana) is preferred by the Malinké, because of its spiritual properties. The drumhead is about 36 cm in diameter and is covered with goatskin. The jembe is said to have originated with the Mandinka caste of blacksmiths and probably dates back to at least as early as the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Although not an instrument played by jalis, there may be traditions. which dictate, who may become a djembéfola or jembe player, and traditionally it is only played by men. Although it is now copied in other countries far from its origin, to the Mandinka people, it is a spiritual instrument and can speak at the hands of an accomplished djembéfola. As with the other instruments, many years of training is needed to be a master drummer.
One of the best known masters is Mamady Keïta from Balandougou, Guinea, near the border with Mali. He was initiated in learning the djembé and the history and music of the Malinke people at an early age. A video of some of his playing is shown below.
Mamady Keïta – Djembéfola
Last updated: 2017-09-29 @ 11:05:02