Ugandan Instruments



Adungu is a bow-harp originally played by the Alur, a Nile people of northwestern Uganda. The instrument is made of a sound box that is enclosed in two swatches of cowhide. The top skin covers the sound-box and is tightly attached to the bottom skin by cowhide tendons. Eight or more strings – traditionally made of tendons but more recently comprised of nylon – run through the top skin. These strings are stretched tightly and attached to the arched neck (which curves upwards from the sound box) with the aid of wooden tuning pegs. The pegs alter the pitches of the strings by stretching or loosening them. Adungu strings are plucked with the thumb and index finder of the left and right hands, which often play more than one note at once. 



Ndongo is a bowl-lyre traditionally played by the Baganda people of south-central Uganda. The instrument is comprised of a wooden hollow shell or bowl-shaped body. This bowl is covered by cowhide with fur. Across the top of the bowl is a stretched python or monitor lizard skin. Two wooden poles or arms that support the eight strings of the instrument on a cross wooden bar run through this skin. While these strings are traditionally made from tendons, in recent times nylon strings are commonly used. The ndongo is tuned by turning its tuning rings, which are made by wrapping banana fiber and goat hide tendons around the instrument’s wooden cross bar. The meeting points of the wooden arms and cross bar are adorned with hair from a goat’s tail or colobus monkey skin. Often referred to as the beard of the instrument, this feature both personifies the ndongo and signifies its maturity. It would therefore be inappropriate to play the ndongo without a beard, as the instrument would be immature. The ndongo is played by plucking its strings with the left-hand thumb and middle finger, which alternate with the right-hand thumb. The two hands play distinct melodies, which interlock to create a cohesive song.



Ndingidi is a traditional tube-fiddle of the Baganda people. The instrument has a wooden cylindrical, hollow sound box that is covered by tender goat skin on one end. A wooden neck runs upwards through the resonator, stretching a single string (traditionally made of plant fiber but more recently of nylon) with the aid of a wooden tuning peg. This string is played using a wooden bow with a sisal-fiber string. Different pitches are obtained by placing the player’s left-hand index, middle, ring, and baby fingers at different points along the top part of the string. Normally used as resin for the bow, a patch of wood sap is attached to the ndingidi’s body. Similar to the ndongo, the instrument is adorned with a hairy tassel that serves a similar purpose in indicating maturity. The ndingidi’s timbre is scratchy, and its pitch range (high, medium, and low) is determined by the instrument’s size.



Akogo is a thumb piano traditionally associated with the Iteso people of Eastern Uganda. Also classified as a lamellaphone, the instrument contains a wooden box that supports ten or more metallic keys or tongues. These tongues are raised on top of a bridge, so that they remain off the wooden soundboard. Though usually made of iron, these keys may be obtained from bicycle spokes. Wrapped around the tongues are cuffs made from tin; these create a buzzing timbre when they are plucked (pushed down with thumbs, then released to spring back up). The pitches of the keys are determined by their length and attachment to the bridge. Tin cuffs contribute to the instrument’s percussive timber, which in turn enhances the akogo’s melodic qualities.


Madinda is a wooden, twelve-slab xylophone traditionally played by the Baganda people. The instrument’s slabs are supported by a wooden frame featuring rubber straps that help to amplify the slabs. The pitches of these slabs may be tuned higher by shaving their ends or lower by shaving their center areas. The slabs and the rubber straps on which they sit are held into place by metallic nails that stick above the frame’s body. Madinda players use wooden beaters to strike the slabs and draw on specific techniques to produce desirable timbres. Madinda music uses two main styles: sekinnoomu, which features a single player striking the instrument with alternating right- and left-hand beaters; and miko, which features two to three musicians playing complementary melodies in octaves. The two main players typically sit on opposite sides of the xylophone, and their individual melodies are designed to alternate as they strike their notes. This creates a musical dialogue within their piece and performance. Because each melody is incomplete on its own, the players rely on one another to realize the song.

Mbaire: Most of the aforementioned characteristics apply to the mbaire, a fifteen-slab xylophone of the Basoga people of Eastern Uganda.

Ndege is the Luganda word for ankle bells, which men and women dancers tie around the ankles to accentuate their body movements. The bells are made of pieces of metal that are folded over to form shells that hold small metallic balls. Several identical bells are strung onto a hide cord with long ends that fasten the instrument around a performer’s ankles tightly so that they do not fall off during dancing. When the performers stomp their feet or make other types of movements, the bells sound the rhythms of these movements, making them audible. Ankle bells are classified as idiophones and are found in many Ugandan and African societies.

Nsaasi are types of gourd shakers that the Baganda people make from medium size gourds or calabash. These gourds are dried before dry seeds of a lily plant are inserted in them; when the instrument is shaken, the seeds move around the inside of the instrument’s hollow body or gourd. The movement creates a strikingly percussive and scratchy sound. The nsaasi are often played in pairs, and they are typically held by the neck of the gourd. A skilled player is able to produce many variations not just in rhythms but also in timbre. This instrument is an integral part of baakisimba music and spirit possession musical contexts.    

NseegeThe body of the nseege (reed-box rattles) is made from weaving together dried reeds to form a rectangular box. The box may be filled with dried seeds from a lily plant, small stones, shells, or pieces of metal. Thus the name. The sounds produced by these objects moving against the body of this idiophone are less harsh than those of the nsaasi. As a result, the nseege are much softer in volume and sound quality. They can be sounded either by shaking the box with two hands or by holding it between two palms and striking it with thumbs. Given this instrument’s multiple playing techniques, a skilled player can produce a variety of sounds from it. The nseege’s role is percussive, and therefore it contributes to the rhythmic complexity of the ensemble in which it is used. However, because of its softer timbre, it rarely used in ensemble settings. If featured in an ensemble, it tends to be more of a background instrument. 


Baakisimba Drums: Among the Baganda people, the word baakisimba is a cover term for songs, dances, and drums. When used in reference to musical instruments, the term typically refers to a set of four drums, namely, mbuutu, mpuunyi, namunjoloba, and ngalabi. Similar in structure, the mbuutu, mpuunyi, and namunjoloba drums have wooden hollow cavities that widen from their bases to around the middle of the top half of the cavity. The drum tops are covered with hairless cowhide, which is uniformly stretched by twisted cowhide cords that attach it to the bottom skin (with fur). Woven up and down through as well as in and out of the two skins, the cords tighten the skins and adorn the sides of the drums.  

Mbuutu and mpuunyi are large hand-played drums. The former’s player uses two hands to produce repetitive rhythmic patterns that act as the centerpiece of baakisimba drum music. Different techniques allow for a variety of sounds from the mbuutu drum. For instance, striking and releasing the outer part of the membrane with stiff palms produces a more hollow timbre. Similarly, muting the membrane with palms while slapping it with fingers allows for a sharper and louder sound. Such varied timbres compliment the monotone sound of the mpuunyi drum, which has a lower pitch and deeper, base-like timbre. This drum derives its name from the verb (o)kuwuuna (“to hum”), which identifies its role of maintaining the central beat. The drum’s beat holds various rhythms of baakisimba music together, with its repetitive pulse acting as the reference to which other performers listen to play and stay in time.

Namujoloba is very similar to the mbuutu and mpuunyi drums, but it is played with wooden sticks. It is also much smaller and shorter than the two drums, rising only about a foot and a half off the ground. This drum has a very high pitch and typically plays syncopated rhythms that complement and support those of the aforementioned drums. Accordingly, the drum’s parts add richness and depth to baakisimba music. Namunjoloba also signals transitions between the different sections of the music.

The ngalabi, a long drum with a tall and slender hollow wooden cavity that slightly broadens out to a wider head at the top, plays a musical role similar to that of namunjoloba. The cavity might have curved designs, and its top is always covered with either python or monitor lizard skin. The skin is traditionally stretched tightly over the upper part of the drum’s hollow cylinder by wooden nails, though recently some drum makers may fasten it with the aid of two rings and strands made from twisted nylon fiber. In the latter case, the fiber strands are woven into patterns and designs that adorn the upper part of the drum. High in pitch, the ngalabi produces sounds that cut sharply through those of other drums or instruments accompanying it. Because of this, it is used to provide cues to baakisimba dancers.



Department of Music

Mahaney Center for the Arts
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Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753