Skip to main content

Traditional Kikuyu Musical Instruments

Emmanuel is from Nairobi, Kenya and loves researching its history. He is also an artist and likes to share what he knows with others.

The Kikuyu people had a few musical instruments that were played by soloists.

The Kikuyu people had a few musical instruments that were played by soloists.

The Kikuyu were agriculturalists, an occupation that is not known for creating great music. However, after the harvests, they participated in choral dances with hardly any musical accompaniment, except for jingles on the legs to help maintain a rhythm. However, they did have a few noteworthy instruments that were mainly played by soloists.

The Flute

The flute was never used in group dances or songs. It was only played when the player had too much time in his hands. It was also played when a man was grieving over the loss of somebody or his personal belongings. During the dry season, when the millet that was planted during the short rain (mbura ya mwere) was maturing, the flute came in handy as a way to pass time in the field as the farmer kept a close watch on his millet crop. During this marira-ini ma mwere season, the birds become hungry for millet and need to be constantly threatened with stones. This watch started at as early as 4 a.m and would continue up until about 7 p.m. The family, especially the boys, would help by taking turns keeping watch on the high platform (getara), which was built in the middle of the garden.

The flute and whistles were played only by men. However, there was a flute that was played by women only that was "...bamboo, two-inches in diameter, open on both ends, and capable of only playing one note. It was played by women at circumcision" (Routledge).

It was taboo to blow these flutes inside a hut.

Metal jingles. They were tied with a string to the leg. The leg was stamped rythimically to the music. Ignore the chisel above the jingles.

Metal jingles. They were tied with a string to the leg. The leg was stamped rythimically to the music. Ignore the chisel above the jingles.

The Gechande

The gechande was a gourd with coloured lines and images that Routledge described as hieroglyphs. It was also decorated with cowrie shells. The gourd was filled with small hard objects to form a rattle. The opening of the gourd was sealed with gum. The images represented a story which was re-told by the player, who played alone without another singer or instrument. By the time Routledge acquired a sample Gechande in 1910, the technique and story telling genre had been forgotten by the surviving Kikuyu. Apparently, the singer would travel for a period of up to six months, performing the Gechande along the way.

Stretched Animal Skin

The Kikuyu did not play drums, which is surprising considering that the use of drums was widespread instrument among their neighbours such as the akamba, chuka, etc.) However, they had a unique musical instrument that was made from a single membrane that was stretched on the ground, from where it was played. Since it could not be carried away, it must have been stretched every time it was needed and then rolled away when it's use was over. It's no wonder that it is not displayed in museums. I have never seen one in use, and the majority of the Kikuyu today would be surprised to know that it existed at all.


The Kikuyu used leg jingles as percussion instruments. The jingles were made by blacksmiths who shaped a sheet metal to contain metal pieces or pebbles. Dancers moved their legs rhythmically to accompany the music. When several dancers moved their jingles to the same rhythm, the effect was beautiful.

Wandindi string insrument

Wandindi string insrument


These side-blown horns came in two variations: the straight horn of the oryx and the spiral horn of the greater kudu.


A type of rattle, Routledge described ciigamba as:

"oval sheets of iron with ends brought to a blunt point that was six inches long, folded over until the edges were only 1/4 inch apart—the form produced being something like that of the banana fruit. Several bullets of iron are enclosed…[these were] worn strapped in [a] horizontal position above the knee joint."

These were used to make a rhythmic accompaniment to singing by stamping the foot in a choreographed manner.


The wandindi was a one-stringed musical instrument of the Kikuyu and other communities. The resonator was made of a bottle gourd and piece of tight animal skin. A stick projected from the gourd and had a string tightly attached to its extreme end. The player made different sounds by sliding a finger or thumb on the string while using a bow on the string, similar to how a violin is played. A modern version often seen with street performers in urban centers in Kenya uses a tin as a resonator. Some communities in Kenya still use this instrument in traditional ceremonies, but the Kikuyu have abandoned it entirely.

Works Cited

Routledge, W. Scoresby, Routledge, Katherine. With a Prehistoric People: The Akikuyu of British East Africa (London: E. Arnold, 1910)


Emmanuel Kariuki (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on March 05, 2012:

Thanks Jamila,

I hope to update this hub soon and hopefully write another communitiy's musical instruments. With 42 ethnic communities in Kenya, there is a lot of materia out there.

jamila sahar on March 03, 2012:

very interesting, i studied some ethnomusicology in graduate school and found this hub very interesting there are so many incredible forms of music all over the planet ! thanks for sharing this, voted up useful and interesting