Glossary of African Musical terminology

Some words you'll come across on ths site and while studying West African music

This is a glossary of African Percussion drums and other instruments associated with african percussion music, that you will come across on this website and beyond when studying this type of music.

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

B

basi

medicine or charm (maninka/bamana)

bass

The bass note on a djembe. This is played in the centre of the drum. See our other article for more information on djembe technique. According to Eric Charry's book Mande Music this may be refered to as duguma.

break

A musical arrangement that breaks up a rhythm. A break can be used to start rhythms, end rhythms and may also be in the middle of a rhythm.

Some breaks are traditional and may mark the steps of a dance.

boli

fetish (maninka/bamana)

baratigi

masters of the bara

bara

The heart of the village where the dancing takes place

baradomo

next in line to the baratigi

baramamare

middle group of the bara

baramakono

youths of the bara

baradogono

boys of the bara

boubou

robe worn by a jeli

basatinbaraba

'your head is like a lizard!' - call for dunun rhythms

bakk

wolof term for a composed break

bonya / binye

respect (1st term maninka/bambara; 2nd term susu)

bemba

ancestor (maninka/bambara)

bogolan

mudcloth (traditional mande cloth).

bumun/bunbun

bombax costatum, matchwood, melina, main wood for dunun and chun (tion) drums, a good light alternative for djembes but not favoured by professional drummers in west africa

bele (bamana: gele, fulbe: celen)

prosopis africana, a very dense, heavy, melodic wood considered great for djembe but rare

balenbo

crossopterys febrifuga, another rare djembe wood

benbe

lannea acida, yet another rare djembe wood

bilakoro (maninka)

The uncircumcised

C

Call (Appel / djembe call)

A call is the common name for a signal to start a rhythm. A call marks the tempo of a rhythm and some rhythms have unique calls, so they may identify a rhythm. There are 2 common calls for used for most rhythms. One is 4/4 call and the other is a 6/8 call. This is not traditional and is something that came about as a result of the ballets.

carite / karite

Shea butter, commonly used on drum skins and on the hands of djembe players.

D

daba

farmer's hoe (maninka/bamana)

djende

axe (as carried by the barati)

douwa

trousers worn by barati, displaying a pattern symboli of the vulture, which represents power

djembekan

'sound of the djembe' - a djembe improvisation (often unaccompanied) - maninka/bamana

donso duloki

hunter's shirt, used for camoflage and spiritual protection

donso kulusi

hunter's trousers

donso banfula

hunter's cap

donso file

hunter's whistle, used to indicate that he had made a kill

dugura

(fulbe: duuki, wolof: dimba) - cordyla pinnata, a heavy, dense wood for djembe

djala (acajou, kail, cailcedra)

khaya senegalensis, a dense, heavy wood for djembe

duniya / douniya

The world

don

This means dance and often appears in the names of rhythms, such as Maraka Don. Which would mean the dance of the Maraka(a Mande ethnic group).

don sen

This means a dance step.

donkili

This means a song.

donkili

This means a song.

Djembefola

Directly translated a djembefola is "one who gives the djembe voice". A djembefola is a djembe player. Generally someone would be fairly competent with a djembe before they are refered to as a djembefola.

danka

curse (bamana/maninka)

djembetigi

Djembe master

donso

Hunter

dununba

The largest of the 3 dundus and the name of festival/party where are played.

dabali

to bewitch (bamana)

E

echauffement

'heating' phase of a rhythm, or the phrases played to heat up the rhythm. According to Eric Charry's book Mande music, this can also be referred to as golobali.

F

Flam

With a flam one hand hits the drum just before the other, with the second hitting on the point you want to emphasise. If you hit it with your right hand first and your left second then you will have more time to play your next note if you make it with your right hand and visa versa. It is worth taking the time to learn to play a flam with each hand leading.

fo

to play (an instrument)

farafina

'land of the black skinned' - africa (maninka/bamana)

fore

black (person) - susu

fote

white (person) - susu

fosson

Whip

fare

A susu word for dance

fassa

A susu word for dance

farafin

black person - maninka/bamana

foli

music (rhythm or piece)

G

Garanke

Are leatherworkers. Garankedon refers to the dance of the leather workers.

griot / Jeli

A historian and story teller. male jelike/jalike ; female:jelimuso/jalimuso.

granary

kassa (maninka)

goueni (susu: harre)

pterocarpus erinaceus, a somewhat lighter wood than lenke, djala or dugura, with melodic sound. used for the bala.

gri-gri

magic/charm

H

horon (maninka/bamana)

class of former warriors, rulers and community leaders. The common name Keita is of this lineage.

I

iroko/odoum

milicia excelsa, popular wood for djembes from ivory coast

J

jeliya

the art of jeli / jeli-ness. See our other article for more about Jeliya.

K

karamoko

Traditional healer

kan

sound, voice, language (maninka/bamana)

korote

magic substance designed to curse or maim the victim

kadan (maninka)

liana bracelets worn by the bilakoro. dunun rhythm played for the bilakoro to dance.

kassaladon

harvest festival

koma / komo (maninka/bamana)

an important fetish and initiation society of the bamana and maninka. They are a secret power society associated with blacksmiths

kore

bambara initiation society

koreduga

member of the kore society who has a comical function

korojuga

comedian/clown

karignan, farinyay

tubular iron chime twirled and struck by jelimusolu to accompani some and dance. The Malian Karignan, also known as Nege (Bamana for "metal"), which is slightly different. It's a metal rasp that is scraped with a large nail or other metal dowel. The Malian karignan accompanies Kamale Ngoni and Donso Ngoni playing. This instrument is very important! It gives a very distinct feel to the music.

the karignan that accompanies donso ngoni is larger than the one for kamale ngoni.

kilisi

curse or magic spell (bamana)

kesekeseni

small basket rattles from sankaran region (similar to brazilian caxixi)

L

lenke

afzelia africana, sacred tree considered the number one wood for djembes by many masters

laada

tradition, custom (maninka/bambara, borrowed from arabic al-ada)

M

Mande

The Mande are an ethnic group from West Africa. Today they are found mainly in Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Mali. The Malinke and the Mandinka are part of this ethnic group of people.

mute

This refers to a note played on a dunun where the stick is pressed into the skin of the drum as it stikes it. This creates a higher melodic note that forms a part of many dundun patterns.

mori

Marabout, koranic teacher and healer

mansa

king/ruler (maninka/bambara)

mbalax

rhythm (wolof), the accompaniments used in sabar rhythms, a senegalese pop genre incorporating sabar rhythms

mali / manin

hippopotamus, emblem and namesake of mali and mande empire

manifosson

whip made from hippo skin

N

numu

A blacksmith, who are traditionally strongly associated with the djembe.

ntomo

bambara initiation society

nansara

white person (bamana)

naado

djembefola hat

nyama

spiritual power (maninka/bamana)

nama

hyena, bambara initiation society

O

P

praise song (maninka/bambara)

A praise song (maninka/bambara)

Q

R

Roulement (or roll)

A djembe roll is when a djembe player fills space with many notes to create a rumbling effect.

Below is an example of 2 notes in the period on one 16th note.

Notice the 2 in the first space below. This indicates to notes played in the space of what would ordinarily be one 16th note

S S T T
2 r l r

There are many different kinds of rolls and they may be in several different timings regardless of the timing of the actual rhythm.

A non educated non-African audience are generally impressed by rolls and as such they can be very easily misused.

You don't need to know about African music to roll well, but your playing will be empty and shallow if you don't have the depth of knowledge back it up.

S

seneke

A farmer.

sofa

warrior

serewa/sora

hunter's musician (also: donso jeli) - maninka

soma

master and keeper of traditions, a person who has delved deep into the esoteric arts including herbal medicine

simbi

old hunter's harp, like the donsongoni

sabar

A festival/party where drums are played (djembe ensemble in conakry, sabar ensemble in senegambia)

Sesse / sege sege / ksing ksing / nanyama

'ears' or rattles fixed to a djembe (sesse is in susu, sege sege is a maninka/bamana word, ksing ksing is in mandinka, nanyama is in bamana)

sana

daniellia oliveri, another rare djembe wood

sunsun

diospryros mespiliformis, you guessed right: another rare djembe wood!

soli (maninka)

circumcision

solima (maninka)

the initiates who have been circumcised

slap

The highest of 3 basic notes on djembe, this is played at the edge of the djembe with finger tips curling and hitting the skin. See our other article for more information on djembe technique. According to Eric Charry's book Mande Music this may be refered to as sanfe or sanma.

In addition to the basic slap, there are also a number of other slaps commonly played on djembe, such as the closed slap, the muted slap and the ringing slap.

T

tone

The middle note of 3 basic djembe notes. This is played at the rim of the drums with the fingers hitting the skin flat and at the same time. See our other article for more information on djembe technique.According to Eric Charry's book Mande Music this may be refered to as cemance.

tweneboa / osese

cordia millenii, sacred tree from ghana used by akan peoples for carving royal drums. considered too soft for djembe

tigeli

cutting or breaking (call/appel)

toubab

foreigner (usually means white person in bamana or maninka)

tekere

Hand clapping

tantango

original word for a drum, origin of the french 'tam tam'. refers to the seuruba and soninke (maraka) and khassonke drums.

taasu

spoken word in wolof, similar to rap

tariku

history, chronicle, epic story (maninka/bambara, borrowed from arabic ta'rikh)

U

V

W

weleli / kili

call (bambara/maninka)

Wasulu / Wassolon

A part of Southern Mali and home to a unique style of djembe music.

wassamba (maninka/bambara) or wassakhumba (susu)

castanets made of calabash discs, traditionally used by male initiates to announce their passings during their seclusion period and purify the area, as well as for dancing at the initiation ceremonies.

warra warra

it's a term djembe masters use to refer to the fast style the youth are getting into. in the words of zoumana dembele, "every good percussionist can play warra warra warra! it has no depth, no subtleties.

worojiri

cola nut tree

woro

cola nut, traditionally used as an offering

X

Y

Z