Musical Instruments of Uganda

Musical instruments play a major role in Ugandan communities. They add to the economic,social, psychological, and educational as well as the therapeutic being of the people and communities as a whole. Musical instruments form a big part of people’s history and cultural heritage. At a point in life, musical instruments are used in people`s daily life activities.

uganda musical instrumentsMusical instruments of Uganda posses varying features, belong to different classes and serve different purposes. They differ in sound they produce, quality,materials and usage varying from one community to the other another depending on the value attached to a specific instrument.Some instruments are similar among communities due to historical reasons as they might have had a similar origin or might have lived together at some time. This relationship is noted in the instruments of the neighboring communities.

A universally accepted classification method has been used in listing these musical instruments as shown below;

This musical instrument is comprised of drums of different sizes and shapes. Drums are made by fixing, tying or fastening animal skins onto curved out wooden frames and the skin used is at times thin, light or thick. The frames too differ in shape and with both factors combine to produce the desired sound or tone.

Due to modernization and improvement in technology some plastic and metallic materials have been introduced to serve as frames and Rubber as well as leather materials are also being used instead of skins. This change is hasn’t been diversely adopted thus traditional standards still dominate.

Drums are the most popular musical instruments used in Uganda and is neglected among small regions of Karamoja and Sebei where drums are not used at all. The continental dominance of drums,makes it is hard to trace back the actual origins of each type of drum. The commonest method of making drums is by making a curving into a tree-trunk after it has been shaped into the size and shape desired by the drum-maker. Drum making wood is selected from material that is not suspected of possessing insects,one which can’t easily rot and is then seasoned by keeping it in a place offering good conditions for a length of time to prevent it from wrapping.During the manufacturing process,some preservatives are administered onto the wood and the skin.Repellant herb is also enclosed inside the frame to aid in repelling insects which can spoil the animal skin and wooden frame. Light and thin skin acquired from crocodiles, monitor lizards and alligators are also used in making long cylindrical drums which are delicate and exclusively played using hands. These drums are covered only at the top. Pegs also are used in fastening the delicate skin onto the large shaped top of the frame.In Buganda the long drums are locally referred to as Engalabi.

Heavy and relatively thick animal skins like those from cows, goats and other animals are used in manufacturing small, medium and big drums that are played with the aid of wooden sticks or hands. They are often covered on both the top and bottom sides. Straps made from animal skin are used in holding the membrane to the desired tone and pitch.
In Uganda,drums are used for various purposes.Some of these include;
Drums are used as a mode of communication:

Drums are a very effective means of communicating. A unique pattern of sounding a drum could be used by a community to summon its members for a particular activity for example hunting.In addition the messages which was transmitted also communicate the place of converging or meeting point, the hunting equipment to bring bring along and which type of animals where to be hunted.Today during this era,very few people can interpret the messages made by the drums or or wind instruments. Similarly drums were used to pass on warning signals to people in case danger had been detected or when declaring war and to call upon community members to assemble. Currently,drums are still used in some regions to mobilize people for community work. Communal work activities range include road construction and renovation,sanitation activities like cleaning hospitals and group cultivation of crops. Communal cultivation is usually done when there is lot of UN-cultivated land and when productive land hasn’t been effectively used.
Drums are used during ritual ceremonies:

Drums are used during ceremonies like when installing kings or chiefs;last funeral rites;traditional worship, cultural circumcision ceremonies;therapeutic treatment, exorcism and twin initiation ceremonies.

In some regions of Buganda, Ankole, Bunyoro and Toro which had kingdoms and monarchies,drums attained a special status as they acted as symbols of royalty.Royal drums were played at special times like at the birth of a royal child, when installation of a new king and during royal burial. Every event and occasion was presented in its own fashion and a unique pattern of playing the drums. The royal drums also attained unique names that differentiated them from other ordinary types for example, we had Mujaguzo in Buganda, Bagyendanwa in Ankole and Mirembe within Toro and Bunyoro kingdoms.

Traditionally, special groups of people where responsible for making drums and other special instruments meant for the palaces. They were hereditary experts whose skill had been passed on by their fore fathers and were honored to choose someone from among themselves to reside inside the palace and maintain or repair the drums for their king. This was the practiced in all kingdoms and most chiefdoms. Among some regions,certain members of a particular clan were qualified and used to sound the royal drums on different occasion and in most cases court-musicians were appointed on merit basis.They were made to declare their allegiance to the king.

Royal drums were stylishly decorated with attractively colored beads,metals and cowrie shells of various sizes and kinds in that their royalty could be viewed in their outstanding fashion of decoration.

In Buganda kingdom, some royal drums were played using decorated bones from dead people instead of wooden sticks.The bones were decorated with beads. These were mostly used when announcing the death of a king. The mode of sounding drums during anniversaries and installation of kings greatly differed.

Another special set of drums within the Buganda royal palace is called the Entega drums. They are claimedt to have been introduced into the palace by king Mulondo during the 16th century when he ordered for them to be brought and played in the palace because of the beautiful music they produce. A rule was passed that these drums be played in the morning and evenings whenever the king was at the palace.Since then these drum ceased from being play anywhere apart from the palace and by the Lugave clan members.
Drums are used during traditional worship and healing rituals:

Drums during traditional worship help to appease demons and evil spirits to bring about results. During traditional worship and healing rituals,dancing and singing accompanied musical instruments. Both drums and songs used for this purpose was believed to be sacred and could not be played elsewhere and for other purposes. These drums are refereed to as etida of Teso, Enswezi and amayebe drums of Busoga, bul jok of Lango and Acholi, Lubaale of Buganda and the accompanying dances were named after these drums.Dancing is carried out by both the healers and the clients or worshipers.Worshipers constantly shaking their heads at a very fast rate and its claimed to be possessed by the spirits which have been induced by the drumming. Other musical instruments used during this worship and healing were gourds,ankle bells and rattles commonly refered to as ensasi in several of Bantu languages.Despite this both drums and rattles have been adopted for other usage.
Drums used during twin initiation ceremonies:

In most regions of Uganda twins are regarded as very special and unique people and are claimed to bring about either good or bad luck in accordance to how issues regarding them are handled.At birth,twins are greeted with special alterations to announce their arrival and welcome them to the world. This is followed with the sounding of a particular drum to confirm that this news spread using utterances.

This long cylindrical drum has been given different names among various tribes for example engalabi in Luganda, engaabe in Lusoga and emiidiri in Ateso but all these refer to the same drum.The mode of sounding the drums at the twin initiation ceremonies is quit distinct from that used during ordinary dances. The sounding modes too differs amongst the various ethnic groups.The style of dancing involves people dancing at close range or even hitting private parts and aren’t anyway similar with normal familiar dances and an outsider would regard this as obscene. Most parts of western Uganda offer no special tributes to the birth of twins and thus there isn’t any apparent musical activity associated with twins in that region. Their tradition views the birth of twins as bad omen or a curse thus unworthy of any celebration.
Drums are for accompanying dances:

Drums are commonly used in almost all regions of Uganda and without them most types of dances in Uganda would be incomplete with an exception of a small portion of Karamoja. Drums aid in creating differences in dances and styles sfor example, dances like Bakisimba and Amagunju of Buganda, Tamenha Ibuga of Busoga, Amakondere of Bunyoro and Ekizino of Ankole which acquired a royal status in these regions, while the Bwala dance of Acholi and Ajos of Teso were done during the installation of chiefs all these are easily coordinated through listening to the drum beat.

In the Acholi region almost every homestead had to at least have one small drum for every Bwola dancer. Bwola dancers were all co-coordinated by the use of a big drum called the bul during the dancing.

This group of Musical instruments is distinctive and has a variety of instruments within it. It has those which are struck, slapped, hit, punched, knocked, rubbed, smitten or shaken, like the drums, logs, xylophones, maracas or shakers or rattles (ensasi). It is comprised of the largest collection of Ugandan musical instruments.Dancing acts like striking parts of the body using metal and wood pieces and stamping feet on the ground produce percussive effects. This testifies to the spontaneity and freedom Ugandans owe to rhythm and musical sound. As may be seen, some of these disposable temporary musical instruments are thrown away after use.


This set has instruments that are operated with aid of air thus are the musical instruments which are blown using the mouth so as to produce sound by the air vibrating. An interesting musical instrument within this set is human hands. Hands can be flipped in various ways to form instruments and then air is blown through them or across to produce a unique musical tone or sound. There are several musical instruments in this class, some of which are temporarily used for an occasion and then discarded afterwards. There are various wind instruments and can categorized into two classes: the hard- blown instruments and the soft -blown instruments.
Hard-blown musical instruments:

Hard-blown instruments are so categorized because to get sound form them requires spending a lot of energy. The arupepe of Teso and Karamoja made of long cow horn with only one mouth hole is used for communicating messages. The amkondere if Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro, agwara of West Nile and amagwala of Busoga are long trumpets/horns made of wooden hollowed out frames which are larger at one end and have a hole to blow through. These instruments are played in sets. They are covered with cow skin to give a beautiful finish of different colors. All these sets are royal instruments. In Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro they were used in Palaces at ceremonies like crowning and marriages of Kings, anniversaries and burials. This tradition was carried to Busoga by Bunyoro. In west Nile the set was used for installation of their chiefs and for big occasions. While the cow horns are played singly, the sets of the royal trumpets are played t a melodic song. They can be accompanied with a set of drums or played singly.
Soft-blown instruments

This category of instruments is so named because of the ease with which the sound is produced. Unlike hard-blown instruments, these require relatively effortless techniques. The wind is blown into the mouth hole to cause the sound t come from the instrument itself with almost no need to lip vibrations. Soft-blown instruments range form hand cavity clay types, goat horns to small horns from game animals. They all belong to the flute division of musical instruments. The Omukuri of Ankole and Kigezi, endere of Buganda, akalere of Busoga and alamaru of Teso have similar makes and uses. The instrument is blown at the slightly v-shaped slit end of the instrument usually with four finger side holes. IN Ankole, the instrument is also played and at times accompanied by drums. When not played for dancing it provides good melodies for grazing cattle and for love songs. In Buganda it can be played solo, in two’s/three’s or small ensembles. An ensemble consists of the largest flute (kiwuwa), second largest (Enkoloozi; third largest (Entengezi); and the smallest (Entengo). In Busoga it is a dominant instrument played in combination with other instrument with percussion and wind sections. The Teso flute is solo or accompanies an akogo set. The soft-blown instruments tend to be highly localized. Some are used as children’s toys. They are used and then discarded.

“chord” literally means a string. It can be made from spinning or twisting sisal, skin-strips or fiber-tissues. Instruments which have these strings fastened in different ways to different shapes of frames are picked, plucked, strummed, hit or struck. Uganda has many different instruments falling in this category. Some of them are so temporary that they are not mentioned in the list. A typical example of these is a string held on one end by biting with the teeth and pulled on the other by the left hand while the right hand plucks it or gives finger strokes to it. Different notes are arrived at by releasing and tensing the string accordingly. When the player is satisfied, the string is thrown away and forgotten.

String instruments can be categorized in two sections: the single string and the multiple strings. String musical instruments are as widespread in Uganda as the drums. There are incomparably more drum players than are string instrument players
Single –string music instruments.

The tube fiddle is variously called endingire, akadingidi, endingidi, esiriri or shilili in a number of Bantu languages and arigirigi, rigirigi by non-Bantu speakers. It takes its name from bowing action and the kind of sound the instrument produces. It is interesting how all sections took the imitation of the sound of the instrument to be the name of the instrument. In all languages, this instrument is played to enunciate words and phrases as if to parrot human language. It is essentially a solo instrument with voice but can also be played as a duet, a trio or together with other instruments.

There are also less popular one-string instruments like sekutukege or aunene (ground bow) in Buganda and Teso respectively.
Multiple-string instruments

There are different in shape. The eight-stringed ennanga of Buganda and the six-stringed adeudeu of Teso (bow-harp) are similar in shape with the eight or more stringed adungu of West Nile

It is so named because it consists of a curved stick that is attached to a trough which is covered with a skin. The lower end of the stick is fixed to the end of the trough. Strings attached t this part of the stick are passed through the skin and are tied t pegs driven into holes drilled at almost equal interval in the upper part of the stick.

In the class of lyres comes the famous entongoli of Buganda sometimes called endongo when played to lead a wedding dance, embaga.

In eastern Uganda a similar instrument called litungu of Bagishu provides music for the shoulder dance commonly called kamabega. In the class of zithers comes the nnanga of Kigezi and Acholi.

String instruments emphasize the narrative and story-telling traditions of the people of Uganda. Love songs, songs of praise, epics, dirges, and joyous messages are some of the typical styles covered by musicians engaged in playing string instruments.

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