Mande Buzzing Devices

In order to fill up the sound spectrum each of the main Mande instruments employ specific constructions. These mechanisms that buzz, rattle, jingle and vibrate all have varied lineages and histories but in the end amount to the physical (rather than sonic) manifestation of this traceable tendency.

The kora, a 21-stringed harp played almost exclusively by Maninka jelis, features a removable metal leaf called a nyenyemo. This metal plate has loops of wire threaded around the edges that vibrate sympathetically with the rhythm and notes played on the strings. The nyenyemo attaches to the bridge of the instrument and from there resonates most strongly with the bass strings filling out the low end of the sound spectrum


The hunter’s harp, called a donso ngoni or bolon in Wasalau regions, is the instrument that many scholars believe the kora is based on. It has a very similar construction to the kora with the most notable difference being the number of strings, which number from five to nine instead of 21. Also, it is not a jeli instrument but as the name implies belongs to the hunter’s caste. The hunter’s harp’s buzzing apparatus is similar in construction to that of the kora—a metal sheet with jingles or rings around theedges—but differs in the placement on the instrument. Where the kora’s nyenyemo is attached to the bridge donso ngoni’s have their buzzing apparatus attached at the top of the neck.

Ngoni, another exclusively jeli-played instrument, is athree or four sting plucked lute. It uses a similar device to the nyenyemo to ascertain a buzzing effect. Some speculate that the ngoni represents the roots of the American banjo.

In an interesting twist of cross Atlantic cultural pollination blues guitar, which ngoni possibly planted the roots of when West Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, has influenced many contemporary Mande musicians, most notably Bassekou Kouyate. Contemporary ngoni playing has another level of buzzing in its use of electric amplification, which by virtue of construction and elementary pickup techniques (mainly contact microphones) has introduced distortion into the traditional idiom. This practical shift in equipment makes any musical references to American blues all the more lucid.A side note: the ngoni is very similar to the berber gimbri from North Africa, an instrument with a similar buzzing device. This connection might explain the roots of not only the ngoni but also the specific method buzzing/jingling.

The last of the three exclusively jeli instruments is the bala or balafon, a wooden xylophone that produces sound when its tuned keys are struck with mallets or padded sticks. Unlike the previously mentioned instruments that produce buzzing usingmetal mechanisms the bala does so with a thin membrane made of cigarette paper, spider egg sacks or plastic bags. Two small wholes are drilled in the resonating gourds that the keys sit on top of. These wholes are then covered with a thin membrane that vibrates with each note struck. This process is very similar to the buzz produced by a kazoo.

balafon image

The lead in the Mande drum ensemble is called the djembe. Drumming differs from jeli music in that it is not designated for praise singing but is celebratory and played at many varied occasions. One way that the two do coincide is in the construction of the ksink-ksink (sometimes called seke-seke or kese-kese), the buzzing piece on a djembe. Like the nyenyemo, ksink-ksink is removable metal leaves with jingles or rings around the edges. They vibrate with each hit of the drumhead. It is also believed that their shape references hunter and warrior shields.

by Adam Gunther 

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