Percussion instruments are found on every continent and in nearly every society around the world. Percussive traditions have shaped cultures and communities. Many percussion instruments in various countries are related, and therefore, musical evolution can be partially traced back through the instruments themselves and their cultural contexts.
Below you’ll find a glossary of essential world percussion instruments from Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and South America. There are certainly many more percussion instruments than those presented below. Trying to list them all would take up volumes. This glossary is meant to describe a selection of percussion instruments in prominent percussive regions around the world that you’re most likely to encounter in the majority of musical applications.
Hopefully the instruments contained in the glossary inspire you to explore your particular interests further, and shed light on some new styles. In addition to the instruments discussed below, consider a variety of other instruments such as the Celtic bodhrán, the Hang drum from Switzerland, Japanese Taiko drums, and the bamboos, metallophones, and kulkuls found in Indonesian gamelans.
As music perpetually changes, it is important to not only study the traditions from all around the world, but to incorporate them into your playing in a way that expresses your own voice. The instruments listed below and their respective musical traditions are essential to our understanding of percussion. When we give them their proper respect, they can shape our own expression. As an example, Trilok Gurtu’s unique approach infuses Indian styles with Western and other percussion idioms from around the world.
Percussion is integral to African dance and spiritual music. A phenomenon of African percussion is the multiple layers of interlocking rhythmic patterns that simultaneously occur in different meters. These polyrhythms are abundant in the West African music of the Yoruba, Ewe, and Ibo people.
Most of the instruments in this section are from West Africa. But East Africa, for example, is home to the ngoma drums of Kenya, the large royal kalinga drums of Rwanda, and the Amadinda xylophones of Uganda. Southern Africa has the karimba and mbira (thumb pianos) and the Zimbabwean Shona marimba. It is also important to note that African percussion has profoundly affected popular drumming styles in America, such as jazz and New Orleans second-line music.
Axatse (left): a hollowed-out gourd covered with a woven mesh-and-bead netting traditionally made from shells. It is a hand-held timekeeping instrument in the Ewe drumming ensembles of West Africa.
Balaphone: a tonal instrument originating from Guinea containing 17 to 21 rectangular wooden slats arranged from low to high notes constructed from béné wood. Calabashes (gourds) are attached to the wooden frame below the slats to enhance its resonance and projection and are played with mallets.
Bougarabou (left): a cone-shaped West African drum from the Jola people of Senegal and The Gambia. Also known as the the “African conga,” it is traditionally played by a single percussionist with sticks or a combination of one stick and one hand.
Brekete: a cylindrical drum with goatskin used in north Ghana among the Dagomba people. It is usually played with a curved stick and one hand.
Caxixi: a small woven basket enclosed with a flat bottom filled with seeds. The caxixi, a shaker, is played in West African music and also Brazilian capoeira music.