I am playing a ngoni, a 10 string gourd harp. I have been happily playing various traditional African songs, but I want to progress to writing/improvisation. It seems like with the traditional setups (5 note/pentatonic scale variations) there is a big emphasis on maintaining rhythms, playing against rhythms, and leaving/returning to rhythms. But I'm trying to figure out some other ways to explore improvisation. Any advice?

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    If possible, I strongly encourage you to connect with other musicians fluent in West African traditions. Improvisation is part of the tradition, and it's best learned in context with all the other "pieces of the puzzle." African music is very social, even the solo genres of the griots, and transmission is very important; you're connected to a lineage of teachers. Even if you're hoping to "decontextualize" the instrument and just import it into your own idiom, you'll have more success if you understand where it's coming from. Commented Sep 23, 2022 at 14:56
  • Are you looking to improvise outside the traditions where the instrument originated? I could imagine a "jazz answer" to this as long as you have an accompaniment. Could you edit your question to include a few of the common pentatonic scale tunings used?
    – Theodore
    Commented Sep 23, 2022 at 15:11
  • Take care about "culture capture". Could be that your concert will be canceled because some people are feeling not so well ... 🤔 😉 Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 10:24
  • Embrace the rhythmic richness! And if you still feel stuck, take up an additional instrument. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:21
  • Thanks all, Andy, good advice, I have wanted to avoid this as lineage is a big issue in my other endeavor, kung fu, and has left a bad taste in my mouth. But it is good advice. Theodore, I am looking to improvise outside the traditions where it originated. Jazz answers are fine. If I have accompaniment it would most likely be either me pre-recording or percussion only.
    – Ben
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 20:00

1 Answer 1


If you want to explore scales (i.e. melodies and chords-in-scale) I suggest starting here at Chord.Rocks. Unfortunately they don't provide harps, so I direct you to piano.

Try e.g. the dorian scale, like here on C (C Dorian). It's close to blues or pentatonic, yet different. For a start it provides enough scales, some of them you need to explore several times to start liking them.


- C Major         degrees  1, 2,  3, 4, 5, 6, 7
- C Dorian        degrees  1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7
- C Neutral Penta degrees  1, 2,     4, 5,    ♭7

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