The ethnomusicological literature on music in West Africa contains several landmark studies on the performance practice, history, and function of musical instruments. The 21-string kora (Senegambia), the conical-shaped drum djembe (Senegal ), the talking drums atumpan (Ghana), and the hour-glass shaped dundun (Nigeria) and others garner particular appeal and interest among organologists. The Stearns Collection contains specimens of each of these instruments.
This lecture focuses on the musical instruments commonly used by ethnic groups in northern Liberia and Southern Sierra Leone, namely, the Mende, Gola, Dei, and Vai. The data used in this presentation draws on more than 40 years of research among the Vai people of Liberia, highlighting the role of musical instruments in numerous cultural contexts, including their vital importance in masquerade performance, recreational dance, and the enactment of rituals and ceremonies of two pan-ethnic secret societies: Poro (Ɓɛli) for men and Sande (Bundu) for women.