African Art, Games and Pastimes



African children are very resourceful and will make things to play with.
You regularly see a young boy walking down the road pushing a car or van made entirely out of wire (see photo above).
These cars have wheels made out of wood or metal (for example the lids from shoe polish tins) and are mounted on shafts that enable the wheels to rotate. He steers the vehicle with a length of wire, the top of which is bent to the shape of a steering wheel. Some boys cut up cans and cover the car with metal plating giving it a more 3d appearance.
Smaller boys roll along a bicycle or car tyre and use a stick to keep the tyre steady. Much like the European children used to do in the Victorian days.



Adults play a game called Mancala, which is a board game for two or more players. Mancala is played all over Africa and when a board is not available, the game board is marked out in the sand.
The game consists of two rows of shallow holes, and the playing piece are usually pebbles, although seeds, beans, cowrie shells, pulses, or buttons are used.
I'm not sure how the game is played and apparently the rules vary according to the region, but the object of the game is to win all the opponent's pieces.


Mancala played with bottletops and a cardboard box

Another favourite is the guitar made from a Castrol oil can. The sound it makes is very tinny (excuse the pun). But it functions as a proper guitar.
David Kramer and other South African guitar players have latched on to the idea and have produced an up todate version which they have called the Afri-Can (see photos below).


African stories and legends are punctuated by musical choruses in which the audience participates, and social events such as weddings, funerals and religious ceremonies, harvests and births are each accompanied by unique songs.


Traditional musical instruments are fashioned from natural materials on hand, and produce an array of effects.
Probably the best known is the marimba, a wooden xylophone from Zimbabwe which creates tones similar to those in western music and is often used for pieces with strong European influences. The keys of the marimbas are made from the hardwood of the mwenjetree of northern Mozambiquewhich produces optimum resonance. Sound boxes are normally made of dried gourds.

The mbira, or thumb piano, also comes from Zimbabwe. It consists of 22-24 narrow iron keys mounted in rows on a wooden sound board.

The international rise of mbira began to gather steam after the 1976 publication of Paul Berliner's landmark book The Soul of Mbira (University of Chicago Press), although it's worth pointing out that ten years earlier, a stage show called Wait aMinim played at the John Golden Theatre in London, featuring mbira music arranged and directed by Andrew Tracey, son of the legendary South African field recordist Hugh Tracey.
For centuries, mbira music's main function was not entertainment, but rather a way to contact the spirit world in all-night bira ceremonies. The songs and sound of mbira attracted the ancestor spirits, who provided advice and council by way of a spirit medium. The traditional repertoire of ceremonial mbira music consists of hundreds of pieces, some of which are thought to be more than 700 years old. An accomplished mbira player is known as a gwenyambira.




Percussion instruments include an array of rattles and drums. Rattles can be made of seeds, gourds, and at the advent of European influence, from bottle caps.
Hosho (maracas) rattles and held in the hands while magagada, majaka, madare (bells) and Ndebele mahlwayi rattles are attached to the legs and ankles of dancers.

The ngomaa tapered cylindrical drum made from the mutiti, or 'lucky bean' tree comes in all sizes. Although the standard skin-covering these days is cowhide, the optimum skins are considered to be zebra and leguaan (a water loving lizard).
To achieve maximum resonance, drums are treated with beeswax and dried over a flame before a performance.
Drums play a leading role in all African music. In Zambia the Lozi tribe have three royal war drums, each over a metre wide and said to be at least 170 years old which are played at a ceremony called the Nalikwanda when the Lozi king, the Litunga, moves from his dry season palace to his wet season palace. The drums are named Kanaona, Kunanga and Mundili.

Probably the oddest percussion instrument ever used in Zimbabwe was the mujejeje, the 'stone bells'. Many stones in granite kopjes around the country have exfoliated in such a way that when struck, they will resound with a lovely bell-like tone.
Historically, special occasions were held around these stones in order to take advantage of this novel musical opportunity. The most famous of these bells can be seen today at the Khami Ruins near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.
The woodwind group is represented by several types of flutes, including pan pipes and the nyanga, or horn which is fashioned from the horn of an animal.
Although traditional string instruments, mostly bow shaped like the Shangaan makweyana, have been used historically, they are rarely played these days.

AFRI-CAN "Township" Electric and "David Kramer Blik" Artist Signature Series

10" Radius Indian Rosewood, Aluminum Re-Enforced Neck
25" PRS Scale Fretboard
Indian Rosewood Headstock.
Covered Chromed Machine Heads
Fully Adjustable Intonation Bridge
D Addario 9 - 42 Gauge Strings
Single Coil Noiseless Pickup
Bottle Top Volume and Tone Controls
Amp Jack
21 Nickel Siver Frets



The harp lute, or Kora, is one of the most beautiful of all African instruments and typical of the Mali region. A gourd, cut in half and covered with cow skin, is used as a resonator. The musician rests the gourd against his hody and plucks the strings with his thumbs and forefingers.

The "string along" is a musical bow from the Cameroons and is simply a wooden stick across which strings have been tightly stretched. The stretched strings are bowed, plucked, struck, or hit with a bow, which is usually a flexible piece of wood with a piece of string attached to both ends. Hollowed out gourds amplify the very soft sounds made by the strings. A musician can coax a whole range of sounds from the bow by holding it at different angles to his body.

Xhosa Uhadi Bow
A side-blown trumpet is played by the Mdi people of Uganda. Usually made from wood or animal horn, trumpets such as these have many uses. They are used to convey messages and signals from village to village, as well as being played simply for the fun of listening to music.
Music is everywhere in Africa and the voices of the African people are particularly harmonious, often needing no musical accompaniment.
People may sing to break the monotony of the working day, or a song may be used to give energy and power to the person to carry out the task in hand.
Mothers sings lullabyes to their babies, and farmers may sing a song during hoeing and sowing.
Some music, such as that of warrior groups, or beer drinking and hunting songs, can only be performed by men.
Other music is sacred to women only, and might be played during rites of passage into adulthood, or during childbirth.
In rural areas, herders and hunters scattered over vast distances signal each other by blowing coded musical messages into a flute, or by whistling.


Zulu Beadwork


Zulu beadwork takes many forms and is worth looking out for - from the small square umgexo, to the more elaborate umbelenja which is a short skirt or tasselled belt worn by women at puberty, but before marriage. Bead anklets, amadavathi, are worn by men and women. Objects are also covered in beadwork.
As in many other societies, beads were used for both decoration and as symbols to define status, but the Zulu people have also traditionally used them as a means of communicating messages, and especially as love letters.
The colours and the arrangement of the beads give the message.
Some of the colours and their meanings are -
Red = passion or anger
Black = difficulties or night
Blue = yearning
Deep blue = elopement
White or pale blue = pure love
Brown = disgust or despondency
Green = peace or bliss
The more subtle meanings of the beads have been largely forgotten and there were always ambiguities. For example a "letter?" predominantly red and black could be promising a night of passion, or it could mean that the sender was annoyed.
Some bead sculptors make social and political comment in their work, often weaving elaborate tableaux; the most famous was the late Sizakele Mchunu.
The best displays of Zulu beadwork can be found in the Durban Art Gallery and the KwaZulu Cultural Museum in Ondini.


My parents admired much of the arts and crafts of the tribes people of Africa, and bought several articles carved from wood. I still have them today. Amongst the articles that they bought were two elephant tables made by the Lozi tribe in Zambia. They are similar to the one above. Though I believe they are meant to be stools.

Also from Zambia or Zimbabwe they bought some carved antelope, a bird, and a crocodile; and also an African carved head. The workmanship is excellent.
I also have two paintings by local artists - an African village scene by Kabuya, and a view of Victoria Falls by Mota. The Mota I actually bought in England from a lady who had been out there.
I have glass elephants and hippo from Ngwenya Glass Works in Swaziland, a small Zulu tribal shield (also found in England), a small rattle drum made from animal hide, various things made from copper which have come from both Zambia and Swaziland, Zulu and Swazi beadwork, and jewellery made with semi-precious stones, such as tigers eye, malachite, rose quartz, amethyst, and agates.
When we lived in Swaziland, we also made use of the baskets and mats and wooden bowls that they made.
When you are surrounded by these arts and crafts you take them for granted and they are not expensive to buy. For example, the glasswork from Ngwenya Glass Works costs about 2.50 a piece - but one of the shops in England who have acquired them from representatives from the country are selling each piece for nearly 30. And the Lozi tables and large pieces of wooden African carvings would set you back in excess of 200.


Ndebele and Basotho House Painting






Carved Ostrich Egg

by artist Nairi Safaryan from Armenia

Ostrich egg-shells are used as water or milk storage jars by a number of tribes in Africa, in particular the Khoisan in the Kalahari Desert, who bury the filled egg-shells to use in times of drought. Each shell can contain 1 litre of water.

The shells are prepared by the women and it takes them about an hour to prepare the shell for use as a water bottle. Once the shell has been drilled at the top to a diameter of 13-20cm, the contents are shaken out (and eaten) and the inside of the shell cleaned and deodorised with aromatic herbs.

The shells are quite thick and do not break easily so they can be in use for a number of years. Designs are occasionally etched on to the shell to show ownership.

Nowadays the decorating of ostrich egg-shells has spread world wide and you can buy these articles anywhere in southern Africa, at street markets or in curio shops. Some are painted by local African artists and some are painted by European artists. And the Ndebele and the Zulu cover the shells in a myriard of coloured beads.

Many that you can buy abroad are painted by an artist from within that country. Artists nowadays have also taken up the hobby of carving intricate designs on the shell and also piercing the egg shells as in the above example by Nairi Safaryan from Armenia.



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