About the Fula Flute
Custom-made and traditional West African Fula Flutes
This unique, transverse (side-blown) flute from West Africa has several names: in Malinké, it is known as the tanbinfule, meaning, “flute made of tanbin wood,” or sometimes just tanbin. It is commonly known as the Fula flute, or Fulani flute, due to the fact that it originated with the Fulani (or Peuhl) people, who live throughout West Africa, with large populations in Guinea and Mali.
These 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 tanbin originally from the Kouroussa region of Guinea.
History and Construction
Although it has existed for ages in West Africa, the tanbinfule 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 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 tanbin in their recordings. My own groups, Afroflute, Landaya and Donkilo! Afro Funk Orkestra feature the tanbinfule heavily.
In West Africa, the tanbinfule is constructed from a thick, woody vine called tanbin in Malinké. The vine has sturdy outer walls and is entirely hollow, making it the perfect material for a flute. I have also seen tanbin 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 tanbin 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 made from a type of beeswax that comes from a species of small, stingless bees. This beeswax is dark or even black in color, and is sometimes cooked with wood ash to change its pH balance and characteristics. Care must be taken with these flutes, as the beeswax can soften considerably if left in the heat!
Sound Sample: Sundiata
Tuning and Sound Aesthetics
Traditionally, the tanbin is tuned to 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. There are variances in how players hear these musical intervals, from region to region.
The equidistant scale is an ancient scale. While it is tempting for the Western musician to characterize it as being “out of tune”, it is important to note that this tuning is quite deliberate and precise. The traditional songs of the Malinké, if played with a Western scale, would not be the same songs at all.*
The tanbin flutes are most commonly found in the keys of A♭, G and F♯ (G♭). In an equidistant flute, these keys are approximate.
* 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).
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 was a master of the Malinké flute tradition. He was born and raised in the small village of Sanankoro, in the Hamanah region near Kouroussa, Guinea. Lanciné was steeped in the music of his people from a very early age. Well versed in the traditional drumming of his village, he was proficient in the dunun (bass) drums, but his specialty was playing the tambin.
Lanciné passed away unexpectedly in 2001, at the age of 52.
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.