West Africa has produced a great diversity of harps, which are consistently uniform in certain respects. From the three- or four-stringed bolon that incites warriors to battle and to the six-stringed donso ngoni or seven-stringed simbi which provide music to protect and impassion hunters, to the twenty-one-stringed kora that symbolizes the royal synthesis of indigenous and Islamic cultures, all calabash spike harps are a major feature of traditional and even modern music in West Africa. The pentatonic sound of the donso ngoni is reminiscent of African American blues tonality, and its use in modern electric ensembles in Mali makes for some of the most fascinating popular music in Africa. Wooden-box-resonator spike harps of the forest regions farther south do not enjoy the widespread distribution nor the documentation of their northern relatives and may be in a state of decline.
The peculiarity of West African harp construction has until quite recently prevented scholars from realizing that these instruments are harps and not a hybrid kind of harp lute. By articulating the distribution of these harps, as well as their morphological features, I hope to have laid the groundwork for future comparative studies which might investigate with increasing sophistication the diffusion of musical instruments.
Mande guitarists are active players in an unbroken and still-vibrant tradition that goes back to the thirteenth-century founding of the Mande, or Mali, empire. That tradition is primarily guarded by jelis, hereditary professional verbal/musical artisans. The acoustic guitar was first picked up in the 1920s or 1930s by jelis who began an Africanization process by adapting their balafon (xylophone), nkoni (lute), and kora (harp) repertories and playing styles to it. The rise of modern Mande music and of the electric guitar began with the independence of Guinea in 1958 when the new government launched a sweeping modernization policy in which European musical instruments (including electric guitars) were handed out, musicians were made civil servants, and a network of regional and national orchestras was established. Mali soon followed suit. Jelis used the electric guitar as the main vehicle for transferring their local repertories to these new urban electric groups. The process of traditional musicians (jelis) embracing, Africanizing, and integrating the guitar into their music culture, and then using it to move their music into the international arena of popular dance music is the focus of this article.
The jembe (spelled djembe in French writing) is on the verge of achieving world status as a percussion instrument, rivaled in popularity perhaps only by the conga and steel pan. It first made an impact outs ide West Africa in the 1950s due to the world tours of Les Ballets Africains led by the Guinean Fodeba Keita. In the few decades succeeding this initial exposure the jembe was known internationally only to a small coterie of musicians and devotees of African music and dance. In the U.S. interest in the jembe centered ar ound Ladji Camara, a member of Les Ballets Africains in the 1950s, who since the 1960s has trained a generation of American players. Worldwide, a mere handful of LP recordings were released up to the mid-1980s, most containing just a few selections of jembe playing.
Since the late 1980s international interest in the jembe has t aken an unprecedented turn. Well over a dozen CD recordings exclusively featuring jembe ensembles have been released in addition to as many recordings featuring the jembe in mixed ensembles. Tours of national ballet troupes from Guinea, Mali, and Senegal, and former drummers from these troupes are playing to swelling crowds. Jembe teachers are proliferating, with some of them leading study tours to Africa, and major drum manufacturers have recently found a market for industrially produced jembes.