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What is an Agogô?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2016
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The agogô bell is a musical instrument first developed in Africa, and possibly made by the Bantu tribes after their migration to Western Africa. It is used in Nigerian Yoruba music but its origins also show this double bell, or sometimes a single one made of bronze, also had a practical purpose. Joachim John Moteiro, who wrote extensively on traveling in Angola and the Congo River in the late 19th century, described the residents as using the agogô or Engongui bells to signal an approach or send warnings about rough travel ahead.

The slave trade, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, exported many instruments, especially percussion instruments like the agogô. Afro-Caribbean music, particularly samba, leans heavily on the double-belled metal instrument. Early African examples show two bells of significantly different sizes, but the modern agogô is more likely to have bells that differentiate in size only by an inch or two (2-5 cm). In addition to striking the instrument with a stick, the bells can be squeezed together to ring off each other. The modern agogô tends to ring at a higher, lighter note, while the African version has a lower tone and is more resonant, reminiscent of a cowbell. You can hear examples of both types online.

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Early African models of the bell are constructed in a slightly different manner, with a long bell and a short bell, which are connected to each other. Brazilian agogôs are usually connected together by a long u-shaped piece of metal. The bells don’t touch unless they’re squeezed together. More commonly the two bells, or sometimes three bells, are played with a wooden stick.

While you’ll hear the agogô in samba, Yoruba music from Nigeria, and in a variety of other Latin American music types or Afro-Caribbean music, you’ll also hear this instrument used by a variety of modern musicians. Neil Peart, arguably one of the best rock drummers of the 20th and 21st century, who is part of the band Rush, uses the instrument in some of his drum solos, which can be exceptionally long, sometimes eight to nine minutes in length. The modern jazz guitarist Pat Metheny is also known for using instruments in his compositions that come form a variety of countries. You’ll hear the sounds of the agogô in one his most famous pieces, “The First Circle.”

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