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.
Djembe: a West African goblet drum with ropes for tuning the goatskin head that is played by hand. The shell is made of various types of wood and it commonly has a head diameter of 12″ and a height of 24″.
Djun Djun: West African bass drums that come in three sizes: the kenkeni (highest pitch), sangban (middle pitch), and doundounba (low pitch). They are performed with one person playing with sticks on multiple drums, or a person playing on each drum, with one stick on the drum and one playing an attached bell.
Embaire: an eastern Ugandan xylophone played with mallets that earlier typically had 21 slats but now has 25 slats.
Ewe Drums: a group of drums that are prevalent throughout West Africa played by sticks and hand. The names of some of the drums are kagan, croboto, atsimevu, and boba. Music in the ensemble is mostly transmitted aurally.
Gankogui: a set of two iron bells used in Ewe music as a timekeeper and played by sticks. There are three syllables referring to the different strokes: tin, go, and ka.
Gyil: an instrument comprised of about 14 to 18 wooden slats played by sticks, which is used in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire.
Kidi: a medium-sized barrel-shaped drum with goatskin played with sticks in Ewe music.
Kpanlogo Drums: a hand-played West African drum traditionally played by the Ga people of Ghana. Usually goatskin or cowhide is stretched over the wooden shell, which is constructed in up to six different sizes.
Log or Slit Drum: a drum carved out of a hollowed log, containing slits or “tongues,” played with sticks or mallets, which is used for communication.
Sabar Drums: Senegalese drums played by sticks or mallets and used to communicate with neighboring villages. Usually a group of seven sabar drums make up the ensemble.
Talking Drum: a West African double-headed hourglass-shaped drum that is struck with a curved stick. The drum is played under one arm, while the rope is squeezed between the underarm and body in order to manipulate the pitch.
Udu: a clay pot or vase originally from Nigeria containing two holes, one on the side of the pot and one on top. It produces a unique bass tone when struck by hand on the side of the instrument.
Percussion is prominent throughout South Asia. Most South Asian percussion literature focuses on Indian classical genres, such as Hindustani and Carnatic music. These styles employ the advanced rhythmic structure of tala. Many Indian percussion instruments are taught through a system of oral syllables that form a myriad of compositions and grooves.
Percussion is central to many more styles around the region, such as in the powerful qawwali music of Pakistan and the bharatanatyam classical dance music of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The lesser-known zerbaghalis and duhuls of Afghanistan, as well as Tibetan gongs and prayer bells are also fascinating instruments to consider.
Dafli: a hand-played/hand-held North Indian frame drum containing a skin stretched over a 10″-diameter wooden shell with two rows of jingles.
Dhol: a large barrel drum played with mallets and used in bhangra music, a form of folk music of farmers in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab.
Dholak: a cylindrical double-sided hand-played drum made from sheesham wood that is primarily played in the folk music of north India, Pakistan, and Nepal. It is also used amongst the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean countries of Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname.
Ghatam: a South Indian clay pot that is held with its mouth toward the player’s belly and struck with palms and fingers.
Ghungroo: an anklet of small metallic bells tied to the feet of classical and folk dancers.
Jaltarang: a semicircular group of porcelain cups that are struck with thin bamboo sticks. Each cup is tuned by filling it with various levels of water.
Kanjira: a hand-held South Indian frame drum approximately 7″ in diameter, mounted with a jingle, and traditionally covered with the skin of an endangered lizard (fortunately, alternatives to the lizard skin are now available).
Khartal: a pair of wooden blocks, sheets, or metal finger cymbals used to accompany devotional music.
Mrdangam: a double-headed South Indian cylindrical drum made from jackfruit wood (originally made from clay) often played by hand to accompany Carnatic music, and tuned with a wooden block and a stone. It is featured in the “Tani Avartanam,” a solo section of a classical piece of music.
Morsing: a jaw harp used in South Indian Carnatic music.
Pakhawaj: a double-headed hand-played North Indian cylindrical wooden drum traditionally used for accompanying the dhrupad style of ancient vocal music.
Pat Waing: a set of 21 small Burmese drums comprising a musical scale and played by hand. The musician sits in a horseshoe-shaped shell.
Tabla: a pair of single-headed hand-played bowl-shaped drums typically found in North India, as well as throughout the northern part of the region, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The dayan (right-hand drum, 5″–6″ diameter) is made of wood and tuned to a specific pitch with a tuning hammer. The bayan (left drum, 9″–9.5″ diameter) is made of metal and provides the bass tone that can be modulated. The goatskin heads that are applied to both drums contain concentric black circles.
Thammattama: a Sri Lankan set of two drums constructed of kos, kohomba, or milla tree containing heads made from cow or buffalo skin and played with sticks or mallets.
LATIN AMERICA & CARIBBEAN
The African diasporic culture has shaped Latin American and Caribbean percussion. For example, the kinka bell patterns in Africa serve similar timekeeping functions to the son and rumba claves of Afro Cuban music.
Cuba and Puerto Rico contain an array of musical styles and dances, such as mambo, guajira, son, bomba, plena, and cha-cha. Great band leaders like Tito Puente and Israel “Chachao” Lopez have paved the way for these styles to eventually become integrated into salsa music.
The three types of Afro Cuban rumba rhythyms are yambu, guaguanco, and columbia. Additionally, the spiritual Bembe music is played in Cuba by the Lucumi people, descendents of the Yoruba people of Africa. Although much of the focus in this section is on Afro Cuban and Puerto Rican instruments, the region boasts music as diverse as Colombian and Panamanian cumbia, Trinidadian soca and chutney, and Jamaican reggae.
Acheré: a single dried gourd with seeds or pebbles inside that is used to keep time and accompany Cuban batá and rumba rhythms. The stem of the gourd functions as the handle.
Batá: sacred Afro Cuban hourglass, double-headed drums originating from the Yoruba culture that are played by hand. These three drums, okónkolo, itótele, and iyá, perform specific parts and are used in Santería ceremonies in Cuba.
Bomba: a Puerto Rican barrel drum covered with goatskin and played by hand. There are two sizes, the larger buleador and the smaller subidor.
Bongos: a joined set of two drums often used in salsa music (diameters: macho: 7″, hembra: 8.5″). Traditionally, the instrument is played held between the knees by hand while seated.
Catá: a 2′-long, hollowed-out wooden log or bamboo that is played with sticks and used to accompany Afro Cuban rhythms.
Cencerro/Campana: a bell commonly used by the bongo player in the chorus of a salsa song.
Claves: a pair of short, thick dowels made from rosewood, bamboo, or fiberglass, used to play the repetitive clave pattern that forms the underlying rhythic structure of types of Afro Cuban music. They are played by striking one against the other.
Conga: a hand-played barrel drum constructed of staves and played in Afro Cuban, Afro Dominican, and Afro Colombian music. Congas, commonly used for Afro Cuban rumbas, are comprised of the following drums: the lowest, or tumbador (approx. 12.5″ head diameter), the segundo (approx. 11.5″ head diameter), and the highest drum, the quinto (approx. 11″ head diameter). Some makers also offer super tumbas (13″–14″ head diameter) and a smaller requinto (9″–10″ head diameter).
Guataca: a hand-held garden hoe played with a stick or mallet that produces a high-pitched metallic tone used to accompany traditional Afro Cuban rhythms.
Güira: A steel tube with fine textured grooves that are scraped with a rod. Used to accompany merengue music of the Dominican Republic.
Güiro: an open-ended, hollow gourd containing parallel notches along its side. Scraped with a small stick to produce short and long raspy sounds, this instrument is used in a wide variety of Latin American rhythms, such as cumbia and salsa.
Maracas: a pair of shakers with handles, made from rawhide, gourds, coconuts, or wood. They are commonly used in the music of various Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Marimba: instruments with slats that are found throughout Latin America and layed with mallets. The marimba de tecomates, containing gourd resonators, is from Guatemala and the marimba de arco is from Nicaragua.
Pandereta: single-headed hand-played frame drums, 10″, 12″, and 14″ in diameter, that are used in Puerto Rican plena music.
Shékere: a gourd of African origin with beaded netting surrounding its belly tht is played like a shaker. It is widely used in Afro Cuban religious and sacred music.
Steel Pan: a chromatically-pitched oil drum from Trinidad & Tobago that is played with sticks with rubber tips. Steel bands comprised of multiple steel pan sizes compete in Trinidad.
Tambora: a small double-headed barrel drum used primarily in merengue rhythms of the Dominican Republic. It is worn around the neck and played with a bare hand on the head and a wooden stick or dowel on the shell.
Timbales: a pair of Cuban mounted single-headed metal drums made of steel or brass and played with sticks. The drums are usually accessorized with cowbells and/or woodblocks.
Traditional Middle Eastern rhythms are played to Mediterranean dance or serve as an accompaniment to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean melodies. Some examples of traditional rhythms include adwar, mizan, iqa, vazn, dawr, and darb. Many rhythms are formed by stressing a combination of three syllables: dum, tek, and ka.
Multiple instruments listed in this section are from North Africa. This is because the music traditions of North Africa were more heavily influenced by the Arabic empire rather than by the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Arabic music tradition deeply impacted the music and cultures of Persia, Turkey, and North Africa.
Bendir: a hand-played frame drum, 10″–16″ in diameter, from Morocco and Tunisia that is fitted with a head containing tightly strung leather or string snares underneath.
Daf: a hand-played frame drum from Iran/Kurdistan with the skin pinned to the shell and interlinked rings on the inside of the drum.
Darbuka/Dumbek: a goblet drum played in Arabaic music, such as in Egypt and Turkey. It is made from ceramic or thin metal with the head made of fish or goatskin or plastic. This is played in the musician’s lap and held under the non-dominant arm while being played by both hands. The Persian dumbek is also called tonbak, tombak, or zarb.
Riq: a hand-played frame drum, 8″–10″ in diameter, containing five sets of jingles and played in Arabic music.
Tar: a hand-played frame drum, 12″– 16″ in diameter, found in Arabic music traditions across North Africa.
Zills: a pair of round and slightly bell-shaped metallic finger cymbals commonly used in belly-dancing.
Like the music of Latin America and the Caribbean, much South American music is derived from African traditions. The samba music of Brazil originated in the state of Bahia, but due to its popularity, has become a symbol of national identity. Other forms of Brazilian music are baião, maracatu, bossa nova, as well as forro and batucada.
Additionally, it is important to be aware of other styles, such as the Argentian tango, the Colombian curullao, and the indigenous music of Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. The wide spectrum of music in South America reflects the Portuguese and European colonial influences upon the African and indigenous people.
Agogo: a double or triple cone-shaped bell played with a metal or wooden stick. It is based on Yoruba bells and is played in samba baterias.
Atabaque: a tall, wooden, Afro Brazilian drum made from jacaranda wood and played by hand. Ropes with wedges fasten the calfskin head to the shell. It is commonly used in capoeira music and in the Candomblé religion.
Berimbau: a hand-played single-string Brazilian instrument made of a bow (verga) and hollow fruit (cabaça) that is played in capoeira music.
Bombo: a large processional wooden drum played with sticks in music of the Andean region of Peru. It is hollowed out from the trunk of a tree, and usually covered in sheep or llama hide on one end and cowhide on the other end.
Caixa: a double-headed drum containing wire strands on the top head of the drum, aka the Brazilian snare. This drum is suspended by a strap and can be played with both hands at navel level or held with one arm at head height.
Cajon: an Afro Peruvian box drum with a striking surface constructed of a thin sheet of plywood. The musician plays sitting on top of the instrument and plays the sides by hand. A hole is cut opposite the striking surface.
Cuíca: a single-headed Brazilian friction drum that produces sound by rubbing its short, thin, carved bamboo cane attached to the membrane inside the instrument. The pitch is altered by pressing the thumb against the skin near the node where the cane is tied.
Pandeiro: a Brazilian frame drum (approx. 10″ head diameter) with pairs of loosely cupped jingles called platinelas that are arranged in pairs around the sides of the instrument. It can be struck by hand or shaken, and is often played in samba and choro music.
Reco Reco: a ridged gourd or bamboo cane that is scraped with a piece of wood or metal and used in samba music.
Repenique: a Brazilian drum used as the lead in some samba schools, like Portela. The slightly long metallic body has 8″ or 10″ nylon heads.
Repique: a high-pitched Brazilian drum played with sticks and used as the lead in some samba schools, like Vila Isabel. It is played with one stick and a bare hand or two plastic sticks and is made of metal with nylon heads.
Surdo: a large double-headed drum that is the heartbeat of the samba bateria. It is played with a large padded beater or baqueta with the dominant hand, while the non-dominant hand muffles the sound and provides a rhythmic guide for the player.
Tambourim: a high-pitched drum, 6″–8″ in diameter, played in samba baterias. It is held in one hand and played with either a wood stick or a plastic stick called baqueta.
Tarol: a 12″ piccolo drum played with sticks that is used in some baterias and contains snares on top of the upper drumhead.
Timba: usually played with two hands and is designed for parading. lt can also be played by using the low tone to mark double time with one hand on the head and the other playing counterpoint on the shell. It is used mostly in the samba reggae playing bloco people of the northeast.
Zabumba: a flat, double-headed bass drum played with a mallet in one hand and a stick in the other hand, each striking the opposite head of the drum. It is a primary instrument of the baião music of the northeast Brazilian state of Pernambuco.