Songs from the Motherland

According to J. H. Kwabena Nketia, former Ghanaian ethnomusicologist and composer who became the world’s leading scholar on African musical traditions, “Music in traditional African societies provides recreation, aesthetic enjoyment, and an avenue for communicating shared values, knowledge, and experiences.”

In the 1989 book, Sounding Forms: African Musical Instruments, Nketia wrote, “Music-making is part of celebrations of the life cycle, special ceremonies, rituals and festivals. Musical instruments played on such occasions are valued for the impact of their sounds, for their aesthetic interest, and as objects having personal and group sentiments, tradition, and history.”

This virtual exhibition presents a cross-section of musical instruments intended to be viewed and understood as both tools to create sounds as well as cultural objects in their own right. Included here is a selection of the diverse media, breadth, and range of distinct styles of African musical instruments included in the holdings of the University Gallery’s Mattye Reed African Heritage Collection.

Representing both contemporary and more historical examples, these music-making objects have been purposely created and are utilized to produce diverse sounds, from the shaken idiophone rattles to the vibrating surface of the membranophone drums. The roots of some of these instruments stretch back to ancient beginnings, while others have provided the inspiration and development of such modern, recognizable and well-known instruments including banjos and guitars – ubiquitous around the globe in diverse contemporary societies.

Decoration and adornment plays an important role in the creation of these utilitarian sound-making devices, whether represented through fluid, figural forms carved into wooden bases to embellishment with modern bright and bold painted surfaces.

We hope you will delight in the visual and aesthetic value of these objects and we encourage you to visit the University Galleries in person to view additional musical instruments currently on display from our collections.

Amy Schwartzott, Ph.D., University Galleries curator