Title: Folk Music of Liberia—Kpelle Band (field recording by Ruth Stone--see Bibliography). Label: Folkways Records. Format: CD. Catalogue#: F-4465. Track: 11.

Contextual Associations

Turu are side-blown lip-reed aerophones of the Kpelle people of Liberia. These four horns are used in the meni-kpala ensemble of the Kpelle. This is a non-ceremonial, recreational ensemble used to accompany dancing. Turu horns can also be used individually for signaling. The distinctive shape of these horns suggests they might be anthropomorphic, in particular that they might be seen as phallic (a not uncommon association to be attached to straight side- and end-blown wind instruments in many cultures around the world). However, the literature on the Kpelle makes no mention of this association. Rather, Kpelle legend has it that turu horns came about as a mimetic effort to sonically imitate the voices of tuu-tuu birds (Stone 1982, p. 95). All four horns have been painted white and red, and possibly also green, at some time, but it is not known whether these colors bear any symbolic meaning in Kpelle culture. 


All four turu horns in this set are carved from solid blocks of wood (ivory and horn can also be used). They have a pronounced conical bore, and at their closed end they are given a distinctive shape: the three smaller ones terminate in a mushroom-like cap; the largest in incised horizontal stripes and a sculpted finial. All four horns have a roughly rectangular shaped raised mouthpiece carved in high relief near the closed end of the instrument. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Each of the four side-blown turu is held horizontally by an individual musician who produces sound by forcing an airstream through his tensed lips (or embouchure) while pressing them against the raised mouthpiece. The shorter the length of the horn, the higher the pitch it produces; the longer the horn, the lower its pitch. The players also produce vocal sounds through the horns in addition to lip-reed sounds, and in performance they alternate the playing of the horns with the singing of songs. The performer’s multi-ostinato hocketing (one-note-per-player) instrumental playing and their singing is supported by a rhythmic foundation played on two goblet-shaped drums called feli. Together, the horns and the drums comprise the meni-kpala ensemble.


Side-blown horns played in hocket are used by many peoples of the vast western African Mande-speaking cultural region of which the Kpelle are a part. There is no indication that the turu horns are unique to the Kpelle, but rather that they are more likely a Mande cultural inheritance of some historical depth that the Kpelle brought with them when they migrated to their current location.

Bibliographic Citations

DjeDje, Jacqueline Cogdell. 1998. "West Africa: An Introduction." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.1. ed. Ruth M. Stone. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 442-470.

Stone, Ruth M., and Vernon L. Stone. 1972. Music of the Kpelle of Liberia. Cassette and liner notes. Smithsonian Folkways FE 4385.

Stone, Ruth M. 1982. Let the Inside Be Sweet: The Interpretation of Music Event Among the Kpelle of Liberia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

“Turu (i).” 1984. NGDMI v.3: 683.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: West Africa

Nation: Liberia

Formation: Kpelle

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.122.1 aerophone--side-blown straight natural labrosone

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over hole in side of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: single pitch - one pitch produced in single air cavity


14 to 23.6 in. lengths

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter