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- with specific reference to the tribes,

instruments and culture of the San and Khoi-
San tribes

Research and opinions by: Lyndi Green

Student number: 205008356

Lecturer: Professor Zelda Potgieter

Date: 13 June 2008

Course: Musicology 401

Some explanations
As I began to research and write in the field of local African instruments, I started
running up against numerous philosophical issues. I could have spent years coming to
grips with the paths each question posed, and decided to define exactly what I wanted to
achieve in my research, and that I would also not be able to tackle each individual tribe,
culture and instrument in Southern Africa in every detail available, as well as specifically
tribes in my own geographical area of the Eastern and Western Cape. I have decided upon
the two older tribes of the San and Khoi-San. Many of the younger tribes of Southern
Africa were influenced by these two older tribes. I did however begin my research on a
overall explanation on the grouping of musical instruments (namely membranophones,
idiophones, aerophones and chordophones) with specific mention of the Southern African
More specifically, my research is in the field of ethnomusicology, and I will be
looking at my information from the scholarly, scientific and research paradigm of
Positivism, made known by musicoligists JN Forkel and Guido Adler.

On the term ‘traditional’

When one unravels the notion of tradition, a number of questions with no definite
answers are raised. Where does one draw the line between traditional and modern? Do
traditional art forms belong only to the past? Can these traditional instruments be records
of pre-colonial contact?
Some ethnomusicologists have used alternative terms, rejecting the terms
‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ and used ‘established canon’ and ‘emergent styles’ instead (as
done by researcher Robin Wells, for example). These ethnomusicologists argue that art
belonging to the established canon is located in the past, and is often performed as ‘self-
conscious references to the past’. Emergent styles are styles that have evolved over the
last 150 years, are part of modern performance contexts, and usually have foreign
influences. They distinguish between styles that are embedded in a culture with little or
no external influences and styles that develop with modernity and its accompanying
For the purpose of my research, and with full awareness of the problematic nature of such
a broad concept as the word ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, I have stayed with the original
terminology – the music of a specific culture drawing on histories of the past.

On area or district
The details of customs and practices may vary from one area to the next. As I have
limited space in my research, I have not been able to represent every existing group or
focus on specific areas of Southern Africa for the specific clans. Using the limited
information I have gathered from various sources of research and writing in the field, I
have made broad assumptions.

On instruments
Ethnomusicologists cannot seem to agree on one particular spelling or name of certain
instruments. Over time, spelling and instrument names have changed. I have used the
spelling and names that occurred most frequently throughout my research. I have also
taken note when different instruments have been given the same name, as often happens
in African naming.

On ceremonies and rituals

I have only included the ceremonies and aspects of them that relate to the music and
instruments I have researched. I have not covered all the rituals and ceremonies that
weren’t linked to an instrument I studied.

On tribes
I have given an introduction of the various tribes of Southern Africa and instruments in
the various instrument classes in a brief overview. As discussed as the start, I have take
only the San and Khoi-San tribes in a more specific manner.

1. Introdution

2. South African Musical Instruments

`2.1 Membranophones
2.2 Idiophones
2.3 Aerophones
2.4 Chordophones

3. Khoi-San

3.1 History of the Khoi-San

3.2 Music in Performance
3.3 Khoi-San Instruments

4. San

4.1 History of the San

4.2 Music in performance
4.3 San Instruments

5. Bibliography

6. Addendum A: Comparative table of Musical instruments


In South Africa there is an idea that is featured in many cultures, a way of thinking that is
significant to the essence of the African culture. The idea is that only through a sharing of
common humanness can a person becomes fully human.

According to my research into the African culture, there is a nurturing of the idea of
ngumuntu. Children are taught music so that they can participate in group activities, and
then become valued members of their communities. Children are exposed to musical
activities from the moment they come into the world. As they learn language they learn to
sing, as they learn to walk they learn to dance. Singing, playing instruments and feeling
rhythm is as natural as speaking or walking.

Music in South Africa has always lived in the realm of myth and legend, and has been
passed on orally, affecting belief systems and affirming the importance of ritual. Rock
paintings of the San dating as far back as 20 000 years, show people playing musical
instruments and dancing. Through the milieu, music’s critical role in the African culture
is one of protection, as in the legend of the ‘magic drum’, which the Venda chiefs carried
while traveling to southern Africa in the late 18th century so that enemies would be
scared-off by the power of the beat. There is also the enchanted Tsonga ‘flute of heaven’,
which is blown during thunderstorms to ward off lightning stricking an unsuspecting

The Bantu and Khoi-san use music not only to express the values attached to their
traditions, but to communicate with the ancestors. Their music reaches into the spirit
world and helps to put a protective veil over the living. In certain rituals music also has
healing properties – it is used as a therapeutic tool as it produces a positive response in
the body and mind of the listener. Through drumming and dancing an individual can
experience altered states of consciousness, where evil spirits can be exorcised and healing
spirits can enter. In many cultures the dialogue between the living and the dead is done
through song. People use rain songs to pray for rain, and clan anthems to thank ancestors
for good fortune. A central part of the African wedding music is used to structure the
marriage ceremony so that partners are guided via the presence of the ancestors. Music is
used to reinforce the role of chiefs and kings, and to create loyalty amongst their clans.
The reed dance in Swaziland affirms the power of the queens, the reed-pipe dance of the
Venda elevates the status of the chiefs.

Beyond all these ritualistic functions is the pleasure and joy that is derived from making
music. Children sing as they play, and adults hum as they work. Traditionally, people
gathered around fires at night to sing and dance. Grandfathers would tell folktales to
children through mime and song. Herdboys make flutes out of reeds, and whistle while
herding cattle, and women compose love songs on their musical bows. Where there is a
bigger group involved, music is expressed by choral singing and group dancing. Here
dance demonstrates the song’s rhythm, mime is part of the visual performance and praise
poetry expresses the lyrics. Songs have multi-layered vocals and there are at least two
voices coming in at different times, singing different texts. When the song cycles are
repeated and responded too with various parts overlap, and the singers may add their
voices at any time. As the song builds to a crescendo and the excitement rises, the pitch
rises. The same song is never performed in the same way. The tradition is to continually
create and recreate so that each performance is unique.
South African Musical Instruments

Traditionally, most South Africans who played instruments lived on grassy plains, and
their economies and socio-political lives were closely linked with cattle. A similar
situation existed in other parts of Africa, such as in Tanzania, Angola and the grasslands
of West Africa. Personal instruments tended to be simple and portable, and many cultural
gatherings used singing in groups as entertainment. The type of materials that are easily
available are used to make the type of instruments that are made and played in any part of
the world. The instruments of South Africa were made of mainly natural materials. Bows
were made from sinew and wood, leg-rattles from fruit or cocoon shells filled with seeds
or stones, and drums from animal skins and wood. Although musical ensembles of
instrumentalists do exist, most instruments are played solo and are used as a form of self-
expression. Percussion instruments are an exception and are used as accompaniment to
dances. This type of music-making allows the individual to temporarily step out of the
community and express what cannot be expressed within the confines of the group.
People have shared and exchanged ideas, borrowing instruments from each other and
adapting construction and playing techniques. Despite the similarities between
instruments across cultural groups, each musical instrument is unique because it is hand-
made. Musicians often make their own instruments to serve their personal requirements,
and because they are made from natural materials, there are no standard sizes.

Membranophones (Drums)
According to Percival Kirby (1968; 52), every race inhabiting South Africa has played
drums at some stage, from the early Khoi playing on wooden milk jugs or clay pots, to
the Venda playing on elaborately decorated wooden drums. South African drums vary in
shape, size and material. Playing techniques also vary, depending on the dimensions of
the instrument and the desired effect. A player uses a stick to rub the head of a friction
drum, she beats the skin of most other drums with her hands. The most common material
used for the body of the drum is either wood or clay. Drums made of oil and tin
containers are also used. The drum membrane is made out of local animals skins like
goat, cow and buck.
Drums in traditional societies provide much more than recreation and
entertainment. They are an important way for the society to express and share their
values, knowledge and experience. The feeling generated by the sound of the drum
strengthens group identity and is healing and unifying. Even when the drum is physically
absent, its presence is felt through hand-clapping, stamping or repeating certain rhythms
that imitate the sound of the drum beat.

Idiophones (Self-sounding instruments)

Idiophones are self-sounding instruments that vibrate within themselves when struck or
shaken. In South Africa, idiophones are an essential aspect of percussion during
communal celebrations. It helps to enhance the rhythm of the music and brings out
emotional responses from people. Idiophones are sometimes used to scare away birds or
control the movements of cattle.

Idiophones are divided into three categories:

Shaken idiophones
The most common idiophones are rattles and shakers, that are used to create percussion
in dances. Rattles are either held or worn on the ankles as part of the dance costume. In
South Africa ankle-rattles are usually made from cocoons, fruit-shells, goat skins or
leaves tied up and filled with stones or seeds. Ankle-rattles emphasise the dancer’s leg
movements, and add their own rhythm to a dance. Today, rattles and shakers are made
from empty containers filled with seeds, rice or small stones.

Struck and concussion idiophones

In this category are hand-clappers usually made from flat slabs of wood, animal bones or
sticks that are knocked together to add to the song’s rhythmic drive.
Tuned idiophones
This group includes two kinds of instruments that are tuned: the mbira (thumb or hand
piano) and the marimba (xylophone).
The Mbira is said to have originated in the Zambezi valley and is the national instrument
of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The instrument is found only in the northern parts of
South Africa (Venda, Tsonga and Pedi tribes) and used mostly for recreation. The
instrument consists of a wooden soundboard onto which a number of keys made of metal
tongues are embedded. The length and thickness of each tongue determines its pitch. The
instrument is sometimes put inside a calabash to amplify the sound. Mbira playing
techniques are complicated. The thumb and second finger of the left hand play the left
side of the instrument; the thumb and second finger of the right hand plays the right side.
The other fingers move across the keyboard to create contrasting rhythms that cut across
each other. When one hears the mbira played, it sounds as though more than one player is
The marimba comes from Mozambique where it still plays an important cultural
and social role. The marimba mutondo of the Venda is the only traditional marimba of
South Africa. It consists of loose wooden slabs that are connected to a frame, each tuned
to a certain pitch. Long gourds are attached underneath the notes and amplify the sound.
Three players strike the keys with rubber-tipped sticks to play the interweaving rhythmic
melody. Although this instrument has been adopted by many South African cultures, the
original Venda mbila is now quite rare.

Aerophones (Wind instruments)

Aerophones are wind instruments through which air vibrates to produce the sound.
Aerophones can be placed in three categories:

The flute/ whistle family

In South Africa whistles and flutes are made from natural materials like horn, wood,
bones and river reeds. Sometimes metal tubing is used to make a bamboo type flute.
Generally only boys play whistles or flutes. The simplest whistles produce only one note
and the player produces sound with his tongue and blowing air through the mouthpiece.
Some end-blown flutes are open on both ends, and the player can play a number of
different notes by closing and opening the bottom end with one finger, and selecting high
or low pitches according to how hard he blows. Side (transverse) flutes are used by the
Tsonga, Venda, Pedi, Swazi and Zulu. Ocarinas (round or oval-shaped instruments with
fingerholes and a mouth hole) are found in Tsonga and Venda tribes. Whistles and flutes
are mainly solo instruments. Herdboys use them to signal to their cattle or to each other
from long distances. Medicine men use whistles while preparing medicine to encourage
the participation of the spirit world.

Reed-pipes are made with reeds, bamboo or metal-tubing. The player blows through the
mouthpiece to made a sound. The Khoi used these instruments to form reed-pipe
ensembles. The pipes are tuned to a seven-note, four-note or five-note scale.

Horns and trumpets

Animal horns are sometimes used as musical instruments in South Africa, depending on
which animals live in the area. Horns are generally blown through a mouthpiece in the
side, and are played mostly by men. The pitch of the horn is determined by its size. In the
past horns were blown as battle signals and were generally used to summon people to the
chief’s kraal. The horns were tuned to different notes and were usually accompanied by
drums. The Zulu play a trumpet made from a tube of bamboo or other modern materials.
This instrument is usually end-blown.

Chordophones (String instruments)

Chordophones are string instruments sounded by blowing, plucking or striking a string
that is stretched between two fixed points. According to Percival Kirby (1968; 102) ,
South Africans have eleven types of stringed instruments, most of them one-stringed
bows. It is believed that many of the South African string instruments descended from the
San hunting bow, which was also used as a musical instrument. Some string instruments
were copied from the European violin and guitar which were introduced to Africa during
the first two centuries of colonial contact among the Khoi. String instruments are mostly
played solo for example during herding and also to accompany soft singing by small
The stave is made of wood, and the string from twisted fibre, sinew, hair or wire.
The musical bow uses a resonator which is a gourd attached to the stick, or the player
may use his mouth as a resonator. All bows are used to play the melody by selecting
harmonics. With a mouth-blown the pitch is altered by changing the shape of the mouth.
If the bow has a gourd, the player moves the gourd towards and away from his/her chest
to create the correct pitch. All bows can produce at least two fundamental notes, most
commonly a tone apart. Bows can be plucked with the fingers, struck with a light stick or
grass stem, rubbed with a small hair or a dry stick, or even by blowing, as used on the
Khoi gora. The gora is known as the lesiba in Lesotho and is their national instrument.
San (Bushmen)

In the last century the Khoi have been almost destroyed or assimilated into other cultures.
No Khoi remain in South Africa, although many so-called Cape Coloureds can trace their
ancestry through Khoi family trees. When the Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa, they
found the Khoi spread throughout the south-westerly regions of the Cape.

History of the Khoi

Archaeological finds suggests that the Khoi lived in the north towards East Africa, and
brought their cattle with them when they migrated south over 2000 years ago. Some
historians have linked the Khoi to the San via similarities in genetics and language, and
this Khoi race split off from the hunter-gatherers and developed their own culture. Their
way of life was different to that of the San. The Khoi herded cattle and sheep, returned
yearly to semi-permanent homesteads, and were organized into clans and ruled by chiefs.
They saw the San as inferior to themselves and forced them to work as their servants,
driving them off their fertile lands they were competing for.
The Khoi spoke in four main dialects in four different regions: the Cape Khoi, the Eastern
Khoi, the Korana and the Nama. The Eastern Khoi were the first to come into contact
with Bantu-speaking people along the South African south coast, and were absorbed into
the Bantu tribes. By the 17th century, the Cape Khoi had made their home in the Western
Cape. They had been trading with foreign ships passing through the Cape since the
1500s. The Khoi suffered the same fate as the San under the control of the colonists. As
more foreigners settled in South Africa, the indigenous people lost their grazing lands and
herds, which were taken over or stolen by the colonists. Hundreds of Khoi were captured
and enslaved around Cape Town and many died in the smallpox epidemics of 1713 and
1755. Few in number, the remaining Khoi were absorbed into the societies around them,
both African and European. Through the mixing between the Khoi and other cultures, the
Coloured population resulted.
Some Khoi groups fled the Europeans and moved inland (late 17th and mid-18th
century). They joined the Kora and formed the Korana. The pure Korana race eventually
disintegrated as a result of racial mixing with whites and Bantu-speaking groups. The
Namaqua lived in South Africa and Namibia, but were also assimilated into other races
through interbreeding. Those who had lived among the settlers spoke Dutch and their
culture was highly influenced by Dutch culture. Among the Europeans, the Khoi were
known as the Hottentots.

Music in Performance

Reed-pipe ensembles
Among some groups of Khoi, the reed-pipe ensemble was the most important musical
activity in their social lives. It was used to bring the community together, binding it
through group activity, and added excitement and celebration to communal life. The
dance usually started at about four in the afternoon, and often continued through the night
until the next morning. Sometimes a sacred rite was performed to invoke the new moon,
thunder or rain. It was also used at festive occasions.
In the reed-pipe dance the men formed an inner circle (nama) and played pipes
while dancing anti-clockwise. The women formed an outer circle and sang wordless tunes
and clapped, dancing clockwise. The music director stood in the center and conducted the
music with a stick. He was also the leader of the dance and played the highest-pitched
flute in the performance. Each man carried a tuning stick, which he sometimes used to
attract attention to himself. He would lie the stick on the shoulder of a girl who he
Song and dance
In the Khoi songs and dances, performers imitated animals and hunting. One typical skit
represented a hyena slinking around a sheep kraal. Many songs and dances represented
scenes from important historical happenings. One performance was based on the murder
of the Kora leader Jan Jonker by Hendrik Witbooi.
Over time the Khoi absorbed European influences into their music, but their
musical culture stayed. Their redd-pipes were eventually replaced by the mouth-organ,
guitar and concertina, and they started singing Dutch folk songs and church hymns.


The Khoi drum was called /khais but was known by the Dutch as the rommelpot. The
/khais is made of a wooden jug or pot used to storing milk and sheep, buck or goat skin
which is stretched over the top and tightened with a piece of riem. Women made and
played this drum to accompany the men’s dancing. Performers drummed seated, striking
the skin with the flat palm of the right hand. They played the instrument during a dance
that was known to the Europeans as the ‘pot-dance’.

The Khoi copied the San by tying coccons, /xororokwa from the swart hak tree around
their ankles when dancing.

The Khoi called their instrument ‘burubush’.

Whistles, flutes and reeds

A signal whistle was made from the shin bone of a springbok or the leg bone of an ostrich
called //aren!as. A piece of riem was attached so that it could be hung from the
performer’s neck. The player held it against his hollowed tongue and when he blew it
produced a shrill, powerful sound. It was used primarily by the chief’s headmen to call
the clan.
Both the Nama and Korana Khoi played reed-pipes to accompany their dances.
The flutes were usually made from reed, but the bark from acacia roots was occasionally
used as a substitute when the land was dry. Bark pipes were lower in pitch then reed-
pipes. The pipes were made of different sizes and gave different pitches in a tetratonic
(four-note) scale. Chewed plant fibre was rolled into a ball and inserted into one end of
the pipe to act as a plug. The player tuned the instrument by moving the plug up and
down the pipe with a stick (//kxaehaib) or a piece of wire. The pipes were given different
names among different Khoi groups.
Among the Nama, reed-pipe ensembles were known as #ati, and among the
Korana they were known as #adi. Women never played reeds, but they participated in the
reed dance. Performances with reed-pipes usually involved at least four performers, and
took place at night. They were held on various sacred and ceremonial occasions.

The Khoi used the kelp horn as an instrument.

Bows and other string instruments

The Khoi did not use the bow as a weapon or a musical instrument until they came into
contact with the San, after which they copied the San’s use of the bow.
Kha:s was the name given by the Khoi to the hunting bow. The stave was made
from a branch of besjebos. It was forced into semi-circle form once a twisted sinew had
been attached. The kha:s was a woman’s instrument and was played while seated. One
end of the bow rested against a bag of skin or an overturned wooden bowl which became
the resonator. The right foot held this end of the bow in positions while the other end
rested on the left shoulder. The instrument was struck with a thin piece of wood or reed
held between the right thumb and first finger. The player used a staccato action to hit the
string, which produced a ringing tone. The player also sang and played rhythms to imitate
the walk of certain animals.
The !gabus was based on the kha:s or hunting bow, but was thinner. It was made from a
piece of besjebos without its bark. A sinew from the back of an ox was fitted into a
groove cut in to the end of the stave. One end of the instrument was resonated in the
mouth, while the left hand held the other end. The string was plucked with the right

The gabowie was an instrument that looked like a guitar, with four or five strings
stretched over a piece of hollow wood and a long handle.

The ramkie originated in Portugal. The name of the instrument came from the Arabic
rebec violin. The lower part consisted on a resonator made from a calabash or wild
pumpkin with a skin stretched over half of it. A stave was secured to the calabash. Three
strings were fastened to one end of the stave and wound round tuning pegs on the other
end. The strings were plucked with the finger.

The tamboer consisted of a flat piece of wood, shaped like a violin and covered with a
piece of goat-skin with a hole cut in the center. Four strings were attached to the lower
end and secured to tuning pegs. Like a violin, the tamboer was bowed with a friction-bow
made of horse-hair.

The Khoi invented the original gora which was a mouth-resonating bow. The gora is
unique because it is a stringed instrument that is played by blowing. It gets its name from
the bird whose feather was originally used as part of the instrument. It is made of a
straight, thin stick or reed. A short piece of flattened quill is attached to the player’s end
of the instrument. The quill is attached to the string, which is stretched to the other end of
the bow. The player holds the gora in both hands, with the quill between his lips, so that
the stave does not touch his face. By breathing in and out over the quill, he causes the
string to vibrate. The gora was sometimes played in an unusual position – the player lay
on his back and supported the bow with his left hand. The instrument produces a
powerful buzzing sound and the gora player can imitate the call of any bird on his
instrument. Vocal sounds, such as humming or grunting are used during performances.
The gora is always made and played by males and is generally used while herding cattle.
The Southern Sotho of Lesotho see the lesiba (their version of the gora) as their national

The San

Thousands of years ago the San were spread over a vast region, from the fertile areas of
South Africa to the deserts of Namibia. Displacement and subjugation caused their
numbers to dramatically dwindle, and they are now found only in very small
communities in the Kalahari desert region of the Northern Cape and in regions in
Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Evidence suggests that in early times the San lived in Tropical East Africa and moved
southwards, eventually entering southern Africa where they have lived for thousands of
years. Some authorities have connected the San of today to the Florisbad fossil finds of
40 000 years ago. They roamed freely as nomadic hunter-gatherers, leaving behind traces
of their presence in rock paintings. They spoke with a click. Their languages can be
divided along three main geographical lines: The Northern San called the !Kung of
Botswana, Namibia and Angola; the Central San called the Nharo and /Gwi of central
Botswana, the Western Caprivi and Eastern Namibia; and the Southern San, the
extinct /Xam who occupied southern Botswana and South Africa.

When the Khoi started sharing the land with the San, the Khoi immediately pushed the
San off their land. The Khoi outnumbered the San and had the advantage of a consistent
food source in their cattle and sheep. The Khoi called them San which came to mean
‘people different from ourselves.The San were seen as inferior because they did not own
cattle and were accused of stealing from the Khoi. The San were employed by the Khoi
as rainmakers and hunters, and were paid with grain and sheep. Some San were slowly
assimilated into the Khoi society.
A similar absorption occurred when the Bantu-speaking races entered southern
Africa in search of fertile land. They were either assimilated through slavery or
intermarriage, or fled to the drier desert regions of southern Africa. The San were
particularly influencial on the Nguni peoples, who adopted aspects of their click
languages. In later years with the arrival of the colonists, the Bantu-speaking peoples
helped the white foreigners to destroy San groups.
During the 17th century, when the first Europeans settled in southern Africa, the
San were forced to work on farms, and many fell victim to genocide at the hands of the
colonists. The term ‘Bushmen’ came from the Dutch settlers who called the San
‘Bossieman’, a derogatory term to imply their lower class status and inferiority. The
relationship between the San and the white colonists was that of master and slave. Many
San refused dominance and were captured and killed. Survivors were drawn into colonial
society and deprived of their traditional lifestyles.

By the beginning of the 1870s the culture and language of the southern San had been
almost completely decimated. A minority of the remaining San have retained their
culture, living on remnants of their ancestral lands. Of the four groups of San once
inhabiting South Africa, only one remains. The majority have embraced their changing
world and live in more permanent dwelling, which has had a huge impact on their fagile
culture. Some work on farms, but many are unemployed and live poverty-stricken lives,
with the continuous threat of disease and discrimination. Communities have been broken
apart and many San have turned to alcohol.

Music in performance

Vocal music
San music is mostly vocal and is characterized by yodeling with a flexibility from lower
voice ranges sung from the chest, and falsetto ranges produced in the head. San singing is
also influenced by their click language, which consists of ‘harsh nasal, gutteral or
croaking sounds’. When singing in groups, singers enter at different points in the song.
Their melodies and voices interweave and with percussive hand clapping and dancing
rattles, and create cross-rhythms. The San very rarely compose songs with words that fit
verses. Most songs have very few words and consist mainly of vowel sounds without
meaning. Musical instruments are generally only played by individuals as a form of self-
amusement and self-expression.
The San sing of domestic themes in their songs. Unlike the Bantu people, there
are very few songs that focus on history and war. The San also compose songs that are
inspired by nature and animals. People communicate with the stars by singing and talking
to them, and with animals through their praise-singing. The San chant animal names,
celebrating their co-existence with them. In naming through song, ancient bonds with
animals are affirmed, and their social, economic and spiritual value is confirmed.

In most of the writings on San dance, it has been observed that in many performances,
men danced and women provided accompaniment by clapping and singing. Dances
generally took a circular formation, with the men moving around the circle in single file
using shuffling, stamping steps, and the women standing and sitting to one side of the
circle. While certain dances were performed in specific contexts and for specific
purposes, such as after a successful hunt; after the first storm of the rainy season; and at
the initiation of medicine men, others were purely recreational, and took place on a
moonlit night after a meal. A drum is played – a small earthern pot covered with the skin
of a gazelle.
The imitation of animals feature strongly in certain San dances. This idea is taken
to its extreme by medicine men who claim to transform themselves into animals in a
trance or out-of-body experience. The San hold a unique relationship with animals. In the
realm of mythical time, the boundary between humans and animals did not exist. By
imitating animals in their dances, the San evoke a past where humans and animals were
one, refreshing their fascination with animals by studying and then mimicking their
movements and behaviour. The San draw on the human qualities they see in animals to
merge the animal and human in dance. The dancers use various materials to aid them in
their representation of animals. They wear ankle-rattles to emphasise the rhythm of an
animal’s movements and make theatrical costumes to add another dimension to the
performance. They create headdresses of feathers to represent birds, and use horns, paint
and animal skins to heighten their performances. People usually incorporate song and
dance into their games to heighten their enjoyment of them. In one ball game, women
arrange themselves in a line, clapping and singing while each person takes a turn to dance
in the opposite direction, and throw the ball, usually a melon, to the player at the end of
the line.

Southern African San trance dance

The San believe in the idea that humans are continually in search of something beyond
themselves, something that will get them to transcend the everyday, and experience
altered states of consciousness. This state is reached by activating an energy called nu/m
(among some San) that sits in the pit of the stomach.
The main channels in which a trance state is reached are song and dance. Singing
triggers the boiling energy they feel and this leads to the climax of the trance, and in turn
‘awakens their hearts’. Dancing is vital to ‘heating up’ the energy so that it can start to
boil. Once this happens, the heat travels through the dancer’s body, through the spinal
chord, exploding in the head and is eventually exuded from the body through sweat. It is
at this point that the individual enters a trance state and transcendence is possible. Song
and dance have fundamental properties for the healing state. Through their connection
with the religious experience and transcendence, singing and dancing are intertwined
with the religious activities of the San.
In San communities, certain individuals get inspiration from a deity and create
songs and dances with healing properties. The !Kung San of Botswana believe that their
god creates the medicine songs and then ‘gives’ them to certain people as a special favour
through the lesser god, //Gauwa.
Dancers enter a trance and start to shriek and howl as the pain and intensity of the
experience increases. In an attempt to heat their bodies more quickly, they sometimes
pick up coals from the fire or even throw themselves into the fire. The women show their
support for the dancers by heightening the intensity of their clapping and singing in
moments of climax. In moments when the energy of the group is at its peak, the tempo of
the music is at its fastest, the singing at its loudest and the dancing at its most urgent.

Trance music is regarded as protection against illness, misfortune and death. It is the
primary way of healing in a culture that continually looks to heal and better itself.
Emphasis is put on the healing of the community, as opposed to the individual. While
individual healing is important, healing of the group is essential. This is the most
important way the San use music to help each other heal. The women clap and sing to
help the dancers reach a trance and to enhance the powerful, electric mood needed for
healing. Music also fulfils a social function a social function. The trance/ medicine dance
is a ‘rite of solidarity’ – it brings a community together and strengthen the values that
bind people. If there is any hostility or tension among a group, the dance eliminates it by
encouraging participation and group activity. One of the most vital functions of the
healing dance is to create cultural continuity and to preserve tradition. With the gradual
erosion of the San culture, these dances have become particularly significant as a means
of renewing and reaffirming San values. With the increase in poverty, malnutrition and
spiritual deprivation that is left of a broken society, healing in the traditional San style has
great value. It affirms the San identity by bringing the community together, focusing the
group’s energy on spiritual upliftment and empowerment, and resulting in a cathartic


There is no record of San drums in the earliest accounts or observations. This is probably
due to their nomadic lifestyle, which made it difficult to transport large instruments. The
few drums that the San later played were borrowed from other groups. The first reference
to a San drum was in 1801 at the Orange River (Dornan:1975). The San played a drum
that was made from a clay pot and covered with skin. It appeared to have been borrowed
from the colonists, who called the Khoi version of the drum the rommelpot, meaning
‘rumblepot’. The drum consisted of a jug filled with a little water so that the player could
invert the object to wet the skin from time to time. The player moistened and stretched
the skin over the edges of the jug with one hand to beat the rhythm. The pitch was
regulated by pulling the skin with the index finger and thumb of the left hand. The San
played this drum during thunderstorms and on moonlit nights to accompany their singing
and dancing.
Another drum, called !kwa, was also played by the San at a later stage. This drum
is made from springbok skin that is stretched over the pot. Only women make and play
this instrument. In performance, a woman beats the drum while the men dance.

The San use sticks and shoes as hand-clappers, which they strike together when they
want the sun to shine.

The San are known as expert dancers. They tie ankle-rattles onto their feet and legs to aid
their performances. They make a variety of ankle-rattles from natural materials such as
wild fruits, seed shells and cocoons. The /’Auni San call their ankle-rattles /kale. These
are made from cocoons filled with ostrich-shell fragments and strung together with
The most unique type of rattle found among the San is called /keriten. The ear of a
springbok is filled with a hard indigenous berry, fragments of ostrich shell or small
pebbles, and then sewn up. Up to four ears make up a rattle. Women make these rattles,
and men wear them on their lower legs while dancing. They were first observed in 1812,
and later in 1905, and they were described by Europeans as ‘Bushmen bells’.

The San bull-roarer is known as the !goin!goin. people compare the sound of this
instument to the buzzing of bees, which was used to attract insects for honey production.
Whistles, flutes and reeds
The San possessed a whistle called #gi, which was made from the quill of an ostrich
feather, and was used to send signals. They also played whistles made from duiker and
springbok horn, which were called /garras.
The San played signal whistles made from the shin-bone of small antelopes.
These produced a ‘sharp and shrill’ sound and could be heard from a long distance away.
A whistle worn around the neck, the umbaendi, was made from animal bone.
/’Auni San females played an ocarina which they called //nasi /khosike. It was made from
the fruit shell of a wild cucumber. Two openings were pierced on either end of the shell,
and the player blew across one of the holes, while stopping the other with the palm of her
The San borrowed their reed-pipes and reed-pipe ensembles from the Khoi. Pipes
made of reeds were cut to different lengths to obtain a variety of notes. Several
performers played at the same time, each producing one note, with a harmonizing effect.
A rudimentary form of the Jew’s harp, called the -//ku//kx’a-si among the /’Auni San,
consisted of a thin grass stalk. The performer held one end of the stem against his mouth,
inhaling and exhaling, and simultaneously plucked the loose end forwards or backwards
with his fingers. The instrument was sometimes used to mimic the sounds of animals

Bows and other string instruments

All South African musical bows originate from the San hunting bow. The discovery of the
musical possibilities of the hunting bow occurred naturally. The bow gives a musical note
when the string is released while shooting. The hunter also used to tap his bow string
with an arrow to pass the time.
The /’Auni San called their hunting bow /khou. The stave is made from wood and
the string from sinew. The player holds the instrument in a horizontal position, grasping
the stave in the middle with the left hand. With one tip of the bow laid between his lips,
he plucks the string or strikes it with a piece of twig or stalk. The performer usually
squats or sits when playing this instrument but also occasionally lies on his back and
supports the stave with his bent knee.
The ‘kan’gan is a mouth-resonated braced bow: the string is tied back at the center of the
bow. The instrument rests against the player’s mouth and the string is plucked with the
forefinger of the right hand.
The nxonxoro bow, made from thin wood, is bent into a semi-circle by the tension
of a string made of grass or palm leaf. A number of notches are cut into the wood along
the middle of the bow. It is sounded by rubbing a stick across the notches, which causes
the string to vibrate. The bow is held in the crook of the arm and the mouth acts as a
The ‘kopo bow is made from solid wood or cane, and the string is made from
twisted hair, sinew, leather and wire. A calabash or tortoise-shell resonator is attached to
one end. It is struck with a thin stick, reed or grass.
The San borrowed some of their musical bows from the neighbouring Bantu.
(Davenport; 1987: 132) The !gawu-kha:s was borrowed from the Tswana. It was a one-
stringed violin, mouth-resonated, and later tin-resonated. The !Kung San called it the tin-
can bow. It is made from a hollowed piece of wood and is strung with a twisted sinew
that is fastened around a tuning peg. The tin can is attached over the top of the stick. It is
played with a tiny hair-bow that is moistened with the lips and rubbed against the string
in a circular motion. Sometimes the player sings while performing.
The San ramkie was a plucked lute influenced by the Portuguese. The lower half
of the body consists of a calabash resonator over which a piece of skin is stretched to
serve as a resonator. A plank of wood with strings attached from the top to the bottom of
the instrument serves as the neck. The number of strings varies from three to six. The
ramkie is seen as the equivalent of the Western guitar.
The //gwashi is a pluriarc, a type of stringed instrument that the !Kung San
borrowed from the Ambo people of Ovamboland. There are two variations of this
instrument. The five-stringed //gwashi is played by males and the four-stringed version is
played by females. //Gwashishi are traditionally made from mangentti, a pliable wood,
and the strings are made from sinew or plant fibre. A log mangetti is hollowed and four or
five holes are burned into one end, so that thin, smooth sticks can be inserted. The strings
are wound around the sticks and are tuned by tightening or loosening them. The player
plucks the strings with the thumb and forefinger. //Gwashi music is usually accompanied
by singing. The singing often consists of humming without words, but occasionally a few
words are incorporated into the song.
The /ka/ kanasi is an ancient instrument that was made and played by older /’Auni
San women. It consisted of a string made from sinew, a knobkerrie, cocoon, dry buck
hide, and length of riem. The player sat down with the stick in front of her legs. She
looped the string round the stick, passing one half of it between the big toe and second
toe of her left foot, and the other half along the side of her right foot. The two ends of the
string were then secured to the cocoon through one tip, and a piece of riem was threaded
through the other. She passed the riem across her chest and tied its two ends behind her
back. Finally, the hide was placed between the cocoon and her chest to serve as a
resonator. By leaning forwards and backwards, the player could alter the tension of the
string, lowering the pitch by loosening it and raising the pitch by tightening it. the player
also sometimes plucked the two halves of the string with her thumbs.

The San were not the originators of the gora, but borrowed it from the Khoi.

It has been estimated that the !Kung San first started playing the mbira around the 1960s.
(Lee; 1976: 211) The San probably adopted it when metal became available to them. The
instrument is played by younger people.

Comparative table of musical instruments


/Khais !Kwa
Rattles and Shakes
/Xororokwa /Kale

Flutes, whistles, reeds

//Nasi / Khosike

Kelp horn

Bull roarers
Burubush !Goin!goin


Ramkie Ramkie

Gora Gora

Barnard, S. 1992. Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa. Hart-Davis Mac-Gibbon,


Binns. 1974. The Warrior People. Howard Timmins, Cape Town.

Davenport, D. 1987. South Africa: A Modern History. Macmillan, Johannesburg.

Dornan. 1975. Pygmies and Bushmen of the Kalahari. Struik, Cape Town.

Katz, D. 1982. Boiling Energy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Kirby, P. 1968. The Musical Instruments of the Native Races of South Africa.
Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg.

Lee, D. (ed.). 1976. Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Schapera, K. 1966. The Khoisan peoples of South Africa. Routledge and Kegan Paul,

Tyrrell, S. 1968. Tribal Peoples of Southern Africa, Books of Africa, Cape Town.