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About the Fula Flute

Custom-made and traditional West African Fula Flutes

The tambin likely originated with the Fula (or Peuhl) people, who live throughout West Africa, with large populations in Guinea and Mali. Their flutes are also used in the traditional music of the Malinké people in Guinea, as a result of their living in close proximity with the Fulani for many centuries. It was from Malinké musicians in Guinea that I learned the craft of playing and making these flutes, in particular from Lanciné Conde, a master of the tambin originally from the Kouroussa region of Guinea, as well as Mamady Mansaré IV (the son) and others.

History and Construction

Although it has existed for ages in West Africa, the tambin is a little-known instrument throughout the rest of the world, although it is slowly gaining attention for its characteristic rich sound and unique voice. Musicians like Mamady Mansare III (the father) first brought attention to the instrument through his playing with the Guinea national dance companies, Les Ballets Africains and Ballet Djoliba. The international group Fula Flute demonstrated the versatility of the instrument with their virtuoso performances of traditional songs for the flute. A growing number of contemporary African musicians, like Dramane Dembélé, Oumou Sangare, Issa Bagayogo, and several others have featured the tambin in their recordings. My own groups, Landaya and Donkilo! Afro Funk Orkestra feature the tambin heavily.

In West Africa, the tambin is normally constructed out of a thick, woody vine that grows along the banks of parts of the Niger River. The vine has sturdy outer walls and is entirely hollow, making it the perfect material for a flute. I have also seen tambin flutes in West Africa constructed out of metal pipe and pvc tubing, and these flutes sound remarkably similar to the wooden flutes (and in fact it is nearly impossible to tell the difference based on sound, especially given the great variety of “voices” that can be created due to the natural variances of the wooden vine itself).

A transverse (or side blown) flute, the tambin consists of only three holes, but has a range of two and a half octaves, achieved by overblowing, and has four distinct “registers”. The embouchure is formed out of a special substance knows as bee cerumin (a natural blend of beeswax and propolis made by tiny, stingless bees) that is a black color and can be easily shaped to help direct the passage of air into the hole. The cerumin, sticky when heated, dries to a hard consistency (due to the high level of propolis); that said, when playing the tambin for long durations on hot summer days, the embouchure can soften somewhat, so care must be taken!

Sound Sample: Sundiata

A demonstration of the song Sundiata, performed be Lancine Conde and Dave Kobrenski. More info here.

Tuning and Sound Aesthetics

Traditionally, the tambin is tuned to what would be called an equidistant heptatonic scale – that is, a seven note scale where all intervals are roughly equal. I say roughly because the tuning depends on the ear of the flute maker, who, without modern tuning devices, creates the flutes to produce the traditional songs and melodies of his particular region; variances from region to region in how these musical intervals are heard can certainly be found. The equidistant scale is an ancient scale indeed, and while it is tempting for the Western musician to characterize this scale as being “out of tune”, it is important to note that this tuning is quite deliberate and actually quite precise: the traditional songs of the Fulani and Malinké played with a Western scale would not be the same songs at all.*

The tambin flutes are most commonly found in the keys of A♭, G and F♯ (G♭) (approximately, because of the equidistant nature of the scales). Since the flute is often played with the balafon, the two “sizes” of flutes are relevant to whether you are playing music with a large balafon or a smaller balafon, which would also be tuned accordingly (many other turnings for the balafon exist and I don’t mean to generalize here; I’m speaking specifically of Malinké instruments that would be found in the Kouroussa region of Guinea). Further, I have seen two models of the Ab flute: a smaller one beginning on the pitch of C, and a slightly larger one beginning on Bb. While they play the same scale (just shifting the range), the determination of which starting note is used is likely decided by the size of the vine itself. While I haven’t encountered flutes tuned otherwise in this region of Guinea, I have met other players, from Burkina Faso, for example, who also have a larger flute tuned to F (and starting on the pitch of A) that is quite beautiful.

Our Flutes

The Kassa Flute Co. offers two varieties of flutes: traditional wooden tambin, made by our teacher and mentor, Lanciné Conde, in Guinea, West Africa, and our own custom flutes, made out of an attractive and sturdy furniture-grade black PVC. Both flutes have their advantages:

  • the wooden flutes made by Lanciné are works of art made by a master craftsman, and have a beautiful, traditional sound and appearance. Lanciné’s flutes are decorated with cowrie shells as well as leather, which also protects the flutes from cracks. These flutes are not tourist items; they are designed for the professional musician and are very high quality. Due to the nature of the vine that is used, each flute has its own unique voice. They can be somewhat fragile though, and care must be taken in regards to storage and transporting these flutes; cracking can occur if not careful.
  • our own custom flutes are sturdy (nearly indestructible!) and replicate the traditional sound of the tambin quite closely (it would be hard to tell them apart from the wooden flutes). Much care has gone into perfecting the embouchure and overall crafting of the flute to achieve the utmost playability and sound. They are decorated to be elegant and professional instruments. Because we make these flutes to order, we can tune them either traditionally (equidistant scale) or to a Western-tuned scale (or somewhere in between!).

The embouchure on both flutes is exactly the same, and there is no difference in playing the two types of flutes that we offer. Note also that 100% of the proceeds from sales of Lanciné’s traditional tambin go directly to him, and go a long ways to supporting him and his family.

*when ordering our custom flutes, please specify whether you would like the traditional equidistant scale (if you intend to play African music), or if you would like us to “nudge” the notes to a precise Western scale (if you intend to play with other Western instruments, guitar, piano etc). I have several of each, depending on what music and with whom I am playing. Also note that the wooden flutes are “as is” in terms of tuning and are usually tuned to the equidistant scale.

About our name

Kassa is a Malinké word that means granary. It is also the name for a family of rhythms and songs from the Malinké tradition that are used for work rhythms – both to accompany the workers in the field as well as to celebrate the fruits of their collective labor. The Kassa Flute Co. name signifies to us that if one works hard, anything is possible!

Lanciné Conde

Lanciné Conde is a master of the Malinké flute tradition who was born and raised in the small village of Sanankoro, in the Hamanah region near Kouroussa, in Guinea, West Africa. Lanciné was steeped in the music of his people from a very early age. Well versed in the traditional drumming of his village, he is proficient in the dunun (bass) drums, but his specialty is playing the tambin, or fulé: a unique 3-holed transverse flute made from a woody vine that grows along the banks of the river (it is also known as the Fula or Fulani flute, for its origins among those peoples). On the flute, Lanciné brings forth even the most complicated of musical passages with the ease and grace of one who has spent a lifetime mastering its subtleties and nuances.

Says Dave: “In 2006, I met my teacher and mentor on the tambin, Lanciné Conde. Lanciné’s kind, patient teaching and selfless sharing of his culture was and continues to be a great gift, one that I hope to repay both by sharing in the same spirit, as well as promoting Lanciné’s music and work to whatever extent possible. In 2012, we released a CD of solo flute by Lanciné Conde (which can be purchased here), and 100% of the proceeds from sales of Lanciné’s flutes go directly to him, which help to support he and his family in Guinea. Thanks for your support!”

Dave Kobrenski

Dave Kobrenski is a musician, artist, and educator with a background in illustration, graphic design, and music. Dave uses his creative talents to explore diverse modes of cultural expression, with the ability to effectively work across varied disciplines. Dave has studied music extensively in West Africa, and plays the Fula flute, kamale ngoni (10-string harp), djembe, and guitar. He performs throughout the northeastern U.S. with his groups Landaya and Donkilo! Afro Funk Orkestra, as well as a few others. The Kassa Flute Co. is one of his creative side projects.

Dave Kobrenski playing Fula flute