The story of the balafon, an ancient West African musical instrument

Updated on Nov 23, 2016 by Chris Sylla

Blog > The story of the balafon, an ancient West African musical instrument

The balafon, similar in appreance to a Europran Xylophone, dates back to the courts of the Mandinka Empire and is still a popular West African instrument today.

"I can remember when I first heard someone playing the balafon in The Gambia, many years ago - I was transfixed; the skill and speed of the playing was outstanding. While I’ve never seriously tried to play the balafon, I have spent many years learning other Western African percussive instruments, principally the djembe drum and my favourite teacher, without a doubt, is Chris Sylla. She has kindly offered to write a series of posts for us on West African musical instruments starting with the balafon." - Kathryn Burrington, The Gambia Experience


 

Introducing the Balafon

The Mandinka balafon, also called the bala or the balphone, is a kind of idiophone (an instrument which creates sound by vibrating). In the West, instruments like this are called xylophones. The balafon is associated with the Griot, an hereditary musicianship tradition of West Africa and in The Gambia this tends to be mostly found in Brikama (where there are also a lot of griot or ‘jeli’ families who play the kora or African harp).

 

The history of the balafon

This beautiful instrument has a history tied up with the stories and legends of the formation of the Mandinka Empire, a story similar to the Arthurian legends of the West. A story of a king, Sunjata Keita, who united the warring tribes by prowess and magic, and created an era of peace and prosperity, sometime in the 13th or 14th centuries. Stories of Sunjata from Gambian sources can be found in many places but Bamba Suso and Banna Kanutes’ book Sunjata, published by Penguin Classics, is a great place to start for those who are interested. Separating truth from fiction here is hard and there are many, many stories and songs of these legends, but somewhere along the line the Mandinka Kingdom was formed. The Griots, or Jelis as they are more commonly called in The Gambia, were the praise singers and court musicians of the Mandinka Empire. Stories of the first balafon, given by a spirit to Sunjata, and the first balafon, player seem to date from this time. One version of the story of ‘bala konte’ (or Kante, spelling is hard to pin down here and tends to depend on whether sources are English or French in origin) has him losing his name, to be given the name of his instrument instead. His own identity eclipsed by his importance as the player of the balafon. He was hamstrung too, according to stories I’ve been told, so he could go nowhere and do nothing but play the balafon in the court of the king.

The Diabate family playing at a wedding in the village of Moria, Guinea, July 2011[/caption] So the balafon, like the kora, was from the court tradition, unlike the djembé and other drums which tend to be from the village tradition, embedded in the everyday life of the people. The balafon, as well as the kora, was used to create music in praise of the kings and for ceremonies of importance.

The construction of the balafon

The balafon is made from a bamboo frame with wooden keys, originally rosewood although as wood gets scarcer other hardwoods are sometimes substituted. The wood is then kiln-baked to ensure no moisture remains. The skill involved in making and playing these instruments is immense. They are often made by craftsmen who have no small hand tools, the keys hewn out with an adze or any ‘big knife’ there is to hand. The keys are then tied to the frame with a single piece of cord each side, this means that if a key comes loose they all have to be taken off and retied. Generally there are 21 keys but balafons, like koras and other hand-made traditional instruments, vary slightly and sometimes they have 22. After the frame is made it resembles a xylophone but then calabash, or gourds, as they are more commonly known in English, are attached underneath to add resonance – these essentially act as amplifiers for the sound.

Each gourd has to be cut and tuned to the keys, an amazing skill in itself. Older balafon players I know have told me of learning this skill at night, when the myriad sounds of the African day – people, chickens etc... have stopped and the silence allows complete concentration on matching the pitch of the gourd to the key. A couple of holes are then cut in each gourd to increase the buzz (or merlion effect if you want to be technical). These days balafon makers sometimes resort to electronic tuning devices instead of tuning simply by ear and the holes in the gourds are covered with plastic (generally cut from the thin black plastic bags to be found all over West Africa) as opposed to the traditional spider web covering once used. The glue for attaching them is often bought from a shop rather than made from sticky rice water and I’ve been shown one method of attaching the plastic using heated chewing gum as ‘glue’. Musicians, like everyone else, have moved with the times.

The balafon today

The Jelis, or hereditary musicians, pass down the teaching of an instrument, generally from father to son but occasionally to a daughter as women are not forbidden to play. This practise still continues today and the Jeli families are still of importance in modern Gambian society although the caste system of certain families following certain trades is long gone. The Jelis serve their society by keeping track of lineages and histories and at weddings and naming ceremonies for the newborn they still perform this function. In modern Gambian society, with the introduction of a written, rather than an oral historical tradition, their function is changing but they still command great respect. These days it isn’t just those from jeli families who play the balafon. I’m a balafon player myself, although originally taught by a jeli. The instrument is played more widely than it used to be, either alone, with the kora (which tends to be the tradition in Brikama as opposed to it being played alone as is common in Guinea for example), or in musical ensembles with drums, kora and other instruments. There isn’t a great deal written on this amazing instrument. Lynne Jessops’ book, The Mandinka Balafon, based in the Gambia, is quite dated now and there’s some information in Eric Charys Mande Music (very heavy going and only for the dedicated ethnomusicologist). I’ve had the privilege of learning to play and mend this extraordinary instrument for over 8 years now and too many musicians, both in The Gambia and Guinea, have been generous with their time and knowledge to name them all. I would just like to acknowledge my first teacher Sekou Soumah, a griot from Guinea, and my husband Moussa Sylla, not a griot, but an amazing player all the same. I hope I’ve not told any ‘secrets’ and that I can continue to play and teach the balafon with the respect it deserves.

Above: Chris learning to made a balafon with Moussa in Abene, Cassamance

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Music Links

Artist: El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté
Albums: Anthologie du Balafon Mandigue, Vol. 1 1990,
Anthologie du Balafon Mandigue, Vol. 2 1992,
Anthologie du Balafon Mandigue, Vol. 3 1994,
Percussions de Guinée, Vol. 2, 2006 Classic balafon tracks by possibly the world’s greatest balafon player, yet he didn’t record his first album until the age of 73.

Artist: Sefo Kanuteh Website: SefoKanuteh.com
A fine example of a modern Gambian balafon player, Sefo Kanuteh, currently lives in Norwich. He plays both the balafon and the kora and his music is a good example of the modern influences on West African music.

Artist: Various
Album: Burkina-Faso, Balafons and African Drums

Artist: Sandiya
Album: Keletigui Diabate, 2004

 

About the author, Chris Sylla

Chris Sylla has been studying and teaching West African music since she made her first trip to The Gambia in December 2000. Based in Brighton, when in England, and Sanyang, when in The Gambia, she has extensive experience running percussion workshops in schools and with community groups, clubs, corporations, festivals and camps (both one-to-one and with large groups). She runs monthly balafon workshops and workshops with djembe folas (master djembe players) such as Nansady Keita and Sidiki Dembele both in the UK and The Gambia. She is married to Moussa Sylla, a Guinean musician, and together they run workshops in The Gambia: The Toumaranke Experience. She also performs with Toumaranke Percussion who's debut album Takhaudi Deqau: Inside the Chicken's Mouth  can be bought in either digital download or hardcopy.

 

 

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