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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Showcasing calabash musical instruments

By Janet Adegboye

In Africa traditional society, music is a culture and through it, other cultural activities within the society are given due recognition. In Nigeria society, music is as diversed as culture itself and traditional music is part of the culture which symbolises the bond between the past, present and the future generations.

As an important aspect of culture, it features in many activities from birth till death even till after death according to African traditional belief in second burial and reincarnation.

Music is linked to agriculture and there are restriction on instruments to be played during different parts of the growing season.War songs are sang to help keep the rythms of warriors in the battle field. In northern Nigeria, farmers work on each other’s farm just like the ‘ebese’ system in Yoruba society and the host is expected to provide musicians for the workers. Women also sing when doing domestic chores.

Except on rare occasion for serenity or mourning, music is undervalued without the accompanying instruments which brings out the rhythms, melody, messages, command and response to music language.


Musical instruments are found throughout the world in most culture with musical tradition, serving dual functions of entertainment and communication.The use of musical instruments predated modern civilization. Musical instruments are used to entertain, accompany dances, boost song melody, communicate, translate and emit daily  experiences and events. Some musical instruments are restricted to age , family, gender and social status of the player with variation in size, complexity in production and material composition. Instrument of music form a vital part of many culture not only for it’s functions in creating music but also as ritual objects imbued with spiritual association, technology, master piece of great value and cultural artefacts symbolising traditional beliefs.The sound of musical instruments is affected by the materials used, it’s size, shape and the manner in which it is played to produce different sounds.

Different materials have been used in Nigerian culture to produce musical instruments ranging from wood, plant seeds, bamboo,animal horn, pot, metal, aluminum e.t.c.but this study will focus on Calabash which shall be used simultaneously with gourd.


Calabash often called gourds are hard shelled fruits of various members of the family of cucurbibitacea. It is the fruits of a certain vine with hard rinds and many flat seeds having various species. Some species are white flowered, while some are yellow flowered. Gourds or Calabash are planted in various parts of Nigeria but flourish in some regions in Northern Nigeria and some parts of South Western States. Gourds are planted to grow and climb on top of trees, climb fences or creep on the ground while the big rounded type grows to become a tree on which the fruits are harvested.The rounder variety are often called Calabash.

Gourds are classified according to shape which consequently determine the use to which they are put. Each specie produces particular shape though with different sizes. In some society, men have exclusive control over the growth and production of Calabash like among the Hausa people whereas in some other parts, both men and women are involved in the art of gourd production.

Gourds are pure when fully grown except if a particular size is required when it has to be harvested before maturity. The head of the gourds are cut opened, soaked in the water until the content becomes rotten and extracted with a tool.The gourd is then left to dry on its own though not under direct sunlight to avoid crack. Sometimes gourds are left for few months to dry depending on the size, temperature and humidity of the drying area. When the gourd is ready, it turn brownish, the shell is hardened and the weight becomes lighter after which it is washed with sponge or scraped.


Decoration on gourds in some parts of Nigeria is exclusively for men while it is not gender bias in other areas and the  skill is passed from generation to generations. Gourd could be decorated or left plain depending on the use to which it will be put. The main decoration on gourds are pressure engraving, pyroengraving or pocker work, gourd could be painted or dyed and scorched to become whitish. Before  gourds are decorated, it is first scrapped to become whitish.

However, most gourd musical instruments are left undecorated except in some cases of the Shantu musical instruments from Northern Nigeria. Apart from the use of gourd as musical instruments, it has been put to a lot of other uses like for storing henna, cosmetic, grains, herbs and tobacco, for domestic use, given as bridal gift, covering the skull of corps before burial, sun coverage for baby e.t.c.


The making and usage of Calabash musical instruments by different ethnic groups in Nigeria depend largely on the availability of the materials in their surroundings. In music, Calabash is a percussive instrument belonging to the family of idiophones and are used either as adjunct to drum rythms or as a stand alone accompaniment to voice.A range of Calabash musical instruments flourish among various ethnic groups in Nigeria most of which are still very much in use till today.


Goge is a traditional musical instruments among the Hausa people of Nigeria. It is played exclusively by the ethnic groups living around the Sahel and the Sudan sparsely vegetated grassland and the belt leading to the Sahara.The instruments is a stringed  fiddle gourd instrument that resemble guitar which is produced by pulling or stretching the skin of lizard or snake over a gourd bowl while a horse string is suspended over the bridge.The instruments when played with a bow string produces multi phonic sounds. It is used to accompany songs, used as solo instruments and played in company of other musical instruments like gourd beaded rattle and Calabash struck drum. Goge musical instruments is tied to various pre Islamic sahelian ritual with the belief that it has a link with the spirit world and carry voices to and fro the spirit world. The instrument is held with high esteem and it is used to celebrate birth, marriage, Emir installation and other significant  events not only in Nigeria but also in some African countries.


Calabash struck drum is a large hemisphere  drum from Northern Nigeria commonly used in accompanying instruments like lute. The struck drum traces it’s origin to Islam in West Africa to Northern Nigeria and it later spread to other areas including the North Central. It is a large gourd turned and placed on a piece of cloth and struck with  paired sticks, Palm of the hand and Beringed fingers to produce a  loud brass tone. The drum is used to complement various types of women entertainment music as well as Hausa borii possession dance. Borii is a pre Islamic traditional religion of Hausa people which requires the bori priest to commune with the spirit through ecstatic dance ritual who will in turn guide, maintain the state, protect the rulling houses, provide healing and divination throughout the kingdom.

Sometimes, the drum is held against the chest and beaten with the palm, upturned in a basin of water while the pitch is adjusted by the amount of air trapped under it. The striker can change the pitch as he is playing by using ones hand to press down the gourd into the water as he beats the gourd with a stick in the other hand.

The choice of selection of gourds for this instruments depends on the smoothness and and roundness of the Calabash shape. The struck drums are now being used by school children and during secular event like marriages.


Duma is a set of ceremonial drum that is used for dances, wedding and general entertainment. The drums are made from  Calabash and animal skin. The Calabash drum is played by beating the animal skin covered part with the palm or drumstick. Such drums are found among the Hausa group inNigeria.


Oftentimes, women are believed to be incapable of mastering the roles of playing musical instruments rather,their roles is restricted to singing and dancing. However, the unique skills of Hausa women in playing the tubular Calabash instrument disproof this belief. Shantu is a long and hollow gourd instrument struck against the thighs by Hausa women to produce distinct thumping sounds and tapped with the fingers to make light striking sounds. The instrument is produced from a special gourd species grown locally in Bornu state .This type of instruments can be classified as wind material because the sound produced is through the manipulation of wind that enters the tubular gourd against the thigh and the thumb.The length of this type of instrument determines the sound it produces.

The music shantu is named after the instrument itself ‘shantu’ which gives the rythms to voices of the singers. The players sit on the floor with one leg straight and the other leg is curved on the floor to enable them to tap the long holloured gourd while they sing. Shantu singers derive their music songs from everyday life and is played for entertainment and during wedding. The instrument is one of the rare gourd musical instrument in Nigeria featuring beautiful geometric designs.


The long and hollowed species of gourd is used to make trumpet accross Nigeria. This  wind instrument is blown during occasion to produce sounds alone, or to accompany songs. The trumpet is blown to pass messages, to accompany songs or as leading instrument to song. This musical instrument is prominent in Northern Nigeria and some part of the Yoruba people of south Western Nigeria. The Ekiti and Ondo people play such instruments during the celebration of ogun festival (the god of iron) in the month of August and it is often called ‘upe’. The  fresh trumpet is harvested around the same time that new yam comes out around june/july. The hunters in Ekiti state also blow the gourd trumpet every 9 days of their meeting to notify members of the commencement of meetings and to dance .The fresh gourd is harvested and cut open on two ends after which it is left to go through fermentation process. The seed is then hollowed out and a small opening is created through which the trumpet will be blown with the mouth and it is left to dry before use. Later, alternative means of  burying the fresh trumpet inside hot ashes in the kitchen after it has been cut open on both ends for it to become soft was devised. The trumpet is later brought out and the inside is hallowed out and left to dry before use. This method is to hasten the process of fermentation.


Gourd beaded rattle is a common musical instruments in West African countries and in most ethnic groups in The Yoruba people call it shekere and the Igbos call it ichaka.

Shekere is a circular or globular shaped Calabash bounded with a complex string of either cowries, beads or seed of plants. The rattle gourd is a key percussive instrument usually played as adjunct to drum rythms,or as stand alone instrument accompanying voice just like among the Yoruba people.Different types/version of rattle gourds exist accross Nigeria culture varying in sizes.

The big Calabash beaded rattle in Yoruba society is called ‘Agbe’ and are often played by men alone. In the past, the sekere was originally a big gourd filled with cowries, covered and shaken. Historically, agbe is believed to belong to the Monarch of Old Oyo Kingdom (Alaafin), the king who loved dancing to  shekere sounds. The agbe was taken to the palace of the king one day to announce the death of his son. The king who was seen playing the local game, (Ayo olopon) on hearing the sound of the shekere started dancing as usual. At that moment,  they used the opportunity of his joyful moment to announce the death of his son to him with the shekere. The dancing king had to resign to faith since it was difficult for a dancing king to start crying. Since then, it is said in Yoruba land that ‘shekere kii bawon rode ibanuje’ meaning sekere will never go for any outing to mourn.

Later, there was further development on the making of agbe by stringing and entwining beads around the gourds with cotton thread to produce splendid Melody. Shekere is believed to be attached to wealth because wherever it is beaten, it attracts giving of money which the beaters often keep inside the gourd. It is believed that the rattle sleep and wakes with money.


Other form of rattle gourd is (shere sango). Sango is Yoruba God of thunder and lightening. The devotees of sango predominantly hold shere as symbol of membership and is shaken as they go about carrying out their religious or ritual assignments. The rattle is used by devotees to inspire a call for worship, for invocations, sanction and blessings. Shere has a long handle to be held by devotees and a round or oval shaped head with the dry seed of the gourd inside which gives sounds whenever it is shaken. It is said in Yoruba folklore that ‘sango lo ni shere’ meaning sango is the owner of shere.


Calabash musical instrument has resonance quality which allows it to give deep and reverberating sounds whenever it is played; a natural quality already formed waiting to be blown or struck. The materials is cheap, easy to get ,easy to repair when broken and the waste or disposed material has the tendency to decay easily and naturally. Despite the qualities of Calabash over other materials used in producing musical instruments and many other uses to which it is put, many societies in Nigeria have abandoned the cultivation of gourds except among the Hausa/Fulani groups hence the art is gradually going into extinction.


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