“A man without culture is like zebra without stripes.” - African Proverb
This proverb, while somewhat humorous, references culture, which includes music. Since Africa is famous for percussion in its music, the violin is in the minority with less than 3% of the population playing the instrument. African drums, and the djembe, in particular, are far more common.
So how do you play the violin in Africa?
What is special about the way the violin is played in African music?
In this article, we’ll be looking at the history of the violin in Africa, the instruments related to the violin in Africa, and places in Africa where you can study music and playing the violin.
String Instruments in Africa
While the violin family (including the cello, fiddle, viola, etc.) isn’t originally from Africa, there are similar instruments in the continent that have been there since the 5th century in certain regions. Most string instruments are either bowed or plucked and although the violin isn't widespread, there are plenty of similar instruments.
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Thus, it’s not uncommon to find instruments similar to the violin in African countries.
- In West Africa, you can find the riti, an instrument with just one string that creates a high-pitched sound with the bow.
- The N’goni from West Africa is halfway between a guitar and a violin.
- In Central Africa, the ennanga is a harp-shaped instrument with an oval soundbox.
- The guembri is popular in North Africa, especially amongst the Berber and Tuareg populations.
- In East Africa and Kenya, the orutu is very similar to the violin as it’s an old vielle.
- In Central Africa, the n’gombi is a mix between a harp and a violin.
- The kabosy, a guitar-shaped instrument, is popular in Madagascar.
Did you know that over 400 different types of string instruments have been found in Africa?
Instruments like the kundi and seto (Central Africa), the sintir (Guinea), and the krar (Subsaharan Africa) are also common. Most of these stringed instruments are used for folk music and local customs.
What are the local customs associated with the violin and related instruments?
The Violin and Stringed Instruments around Africa
As we said before, violin concerti aren’t widespread in Africa. Furthermore, the concepts of classical music, the symphony orchestra, and the string quartet are relatively new to the continent and the musical instrument itself doesn't really blend with local African music.
North Africa, Where the Violin is King
The violin arrived in the region around the 19th century and was quickly adopted into Arabic culture. However, the violin was played on the floor while standing up rather than with a shoulder rest and chinrest.
Did you know that there’s an agreement between Northern African countries called the Sol-Ré-Sol-Ré Accord?
This allowed the violinist to sit down while playing and helped create the nouba. In the 20th and 21st centuries, this trend changed and North African violinists started adopting the traditional European posture with the violin under their chin using a chinrest and, in some cases, a shoulder rest.
As a result, North Africa is where you can find the most violin players in Africa.
Original String Instruments in West Africa
There are a lot of string instruments similar to the violin in West Africa. However, the violin isn’t very common. Some French-speaking countries, such as Senegal, play the violin in some music schools. However, percussion is far more common in local customs than string instruments. You're far more likely to hear traditional drums than the sound of violin strings.
The Rest of Africa
In general, Africa is a continent of percussionists with many different types of drums used in traditional music.
With the exception of South Africa, there aren’t a huge number of establishments offering violin tuition. After all, symphony orchestras and orchestral music don’t really work well with traditional African repertoire.
Where Can You Learn to Play the Violin in Africa?
African musical culture is folkloric and passed down from generation to generation either through family members or village musicians. As a result of this musical culture, there are very few musical establishments and even fewer that offer violin tuition. As we said before, you’re more likely to find violins in North Africa, where it’s more commonly played.
However, there are a few places you can learn to play the violin:
- National Institute Supérieur De Musique, Casbah, Algeria
- Conservatoire National De Musique Et De Danse, Rabat, Agadir, or Tetouan, Morocco
- Music School of Eastern Africa, Kisumu, Kenya
- National Center Musique Des Arts Populaires, Tunis, Tunisia
- Cairo Conservatoire, Egypt
There are also private establishments and schools where you can learn to play the violin in Africa:
- Dakar Music School, Senegal
- Yared School of Music, Ethiopia
- The Music Fund provides music education in Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo
- South African College of Music, South Africa
These are places where you can learn music theory, how to hold the instrument and work on classical violin techniques and local violin techniques. Each ethnicity has its own instruments, sounds, and musical culture. You can also learn about the different instrument families, how to read violin sheet music and ancient violin techniques. Sometimes you can get specialised education with a focus on the cultural aspects of the instrument.
Generally speaking, there are very few establishments offering higher education and violin tuition on the continent and less than 10% of Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists entrants are African.
That said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any famous African violinists.
Famous African Violinists
While European violinists like Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Mozart are the first people mention, there’s also a massive musical heritage in Africa. Just like the greats, they played chamber music and were given violin lessons during their youth. There are child prodigies and musicians passionate about string instruments just as you would find anywhere else in the world.
Joseph Antonio Emidy. Born in 1775, this African violinist was a slave before he became famous in the UK. His compositions are part of the UNESCO Emidy Project.
Adama Dembélé. This famous violinist was born in Burkina Faso. His family were wordsmiths and raconteurs, a common vocation in African culture. He played the sokou, a traditional stringed instrument.
Monia Rizkallah. This Moroccan musician quickly developed a passion for the violin and she now plays in symphonic orchestras all over the world. While she doesn’t often return to Morocco, she has performed concerts there.
Jasser Haj Youssef. As one of the only violinists to play the viola d’amore, he’s one of the greatest violinists of his time. Originally from Tunisia, he attended a conservatoire from the age of 8 and was well-versed in all the subtleties of a symphonic violin. He’s now a composer and performer.
Issa Mbaye Diarry Sow. While famous across Europe but not in his native country of Senegal, this violinist has had a wonderful career.
Abdo Dagher. This Egyptian virtuoso is thought of as a living legend by many. Born in 1936, he’s played in several Arab orchestras, including Umm Kalthumm.
Kyla-Rose Smith. This young South African violinist was born in 1982 and was classically trained in the violin. She played the violin alongside Shakira for the World Cup.
Are you interested in playing the violin?
As one of the noblest instruments to exist, the violin perfectly complements local and authentic techniques. Of course, you won't be studying baroque music as you would in Europe.
If you can't travel to Africa, don't forget there are private tutors available in the UK such as the tutors on Superprof. Since you're a tutor's only student (in that class), they can tailor all the lesson to you.
Additionally, a large portion of the tutors on Superprof offer the first hour of tuition for free. This is a great opportunity to talk to them about how they teach, what a violin teacher can bring you, and just to see if you get along. Whether you want to learn the violin for fun, get into a prestigious music school (in Africa or elsewhere in the world), or become a professional violinist, you can find a tutor to help you work towards your goals.
For those who live rurally or have a work schedule that doesn't allow them to get regular violin tutorials, there are always online private tutorials via webcam. These are often cheaper than face-to-face tutorials as the tutor doesn't have to cover the cost of travelling in their rates.