The balafon is a kind of wooden xylophone or percussion idiophone
which plays melodic tunes, and usually has between 16 and 27 keys. It
has been played in Africa since the 12th century according to oral
records; it originated in Mali, according to the Manding history
narrated by the griots.
3 Regional traditions
4 Famous players and ensembles
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Believed to have been developed independently of the Southern African
and South American instrument now called the marimba, oral histories
of the balafon date it to at least the rise of the
Mali Empire in the
12th century CE.
Balafon is a Manding name, but variations exist
across West Africa, including the balangi in Sierra Leone and the
gyil of the Dagara, Lobi and
Gurunsi from Ghana,
Burkina Faso and
Ivory Coast. Similar instruments are played in parts of Central
Africa, with the ancient
Kingdom of Kongo
Kingdom of Kongo denoting the instrument as
Records of the balafon go back to at least the 12th century CE. In
1352 CE, Moroccan traveller
Ibn Battuta reported the existence of the
ngoni and balafon at the court of Malian ruler Mansa Suleiman.
European visitors to
West Africa described balafons in the 17th
century largely identical to the modern instrument. The Atlantic Slave
Trade brought some balafon players to the Americas. The Virginia
Gazette records African-Americans playing a barrafoo in 1776, which
appears to be a balafon. Other North American references to these
instruments die out by the mid-19th century.
Burkina Faso performing in Warsaw, Poland during the 5th
Cross Culture Festival, September 2009
The balafon has seen a resurgence since the 1980s in the growth of
African Roots Music and World Music. Most famous of these exponents is
the Rail Band, led by Salif Keita. Even when not still played, its
distinctive sound and traditional style has been exported to western
instruments. Maninka from eastern
Guinea play a type of guitar music
that adapts balafon playing style to the imported instrument.
In the Malinké language balafon is a compound of two words: balan is
the name of the instrument and fô is the verb to play. Balafon
therefore is really the act of playing the bala.
Bala still is used as the name of a large bass balafon in the region
Kolokani and Bobo Dioulasso. These bala have especially long keys
and huge calabashes for amplification. Balani is then used as the name
of the high pitched, small balafon with small calabashes and short (3
to 4 cm long) keys. The balani is carried with a strap and
usually has 21 keys, while the number of keys on a bala vary with
Gum-rubber mallets on a balafon
A balafon can be either fixed-key (where the keys are strung over a
fixed frame, usually with calabash resonators underneath) or free-key
(where the keys are placed independently on any padded surface). The
balafon usually has 17-21 keys, tuned to a tetratonic, pentatonic or
heptatonic scale, depending on the culture of the musician.
The balafon is generally capable of producing 18 to 21 notes, though
some are built to produce many fewer notes (16, 12, 8 or even 6 and
Balafon keys are traditionally made from béné wood, dried slowly
over a low flame, and then tuned by shaving off bits of wood from the
underside of the keys. Wood is taken off the middle to flatten the key
or the end to sharpen it.
In a fixed-key balafon, the keys are suspended by leather straps just
above a wooden frame, under which are hung graduated-size calabash
gourd resonators. A small hole in each gourd is covered with a
membrane traditionally of thin spider's-egg sac filaments (nowadays
more usually of cigarette paper or thin plastic film) to produce the
characteristic nasal-buzz timbre of the instrument, which is usually
played with two gum-rubber-wound mallets while seated on a low stool
(or while standing using a shoulder or waist sling hooked to its
As the balafon cultures vary across West Africa, so does the approach
to the instrument itself. In many areas the balafon is played alone in
a ritual context, in others as part of an ensemble. In
Mali, the balafon is often part of an ensemble of three, pitched low,
medium and high. In Cameroon, six balafon of varying size perform
together in an orchestra, called a komenchang. An Igbo variation
exists with only one large tuned key for each player. And while in
most cases a single player hits multiple keys with two mallets, some
traditions place two or more players at each keyboard.
The Susu and Malinké people of
Guinea are closely identified with the
balafon, as are the other Manding peoples of Mali, Senegal, and the
Gambia. Cameroon, Chad, and even the nations of the
Congo Basin have a
long balafon traditions.
Often, balafon players will wear belled bracelets on each wrist,
accentuating the sound of the keys.
In some cultures the balafon was (and in some still is) a sacred
instrument, playable only by trained religious caste members and only
at ritual events such as festivals, royal, funerial, or marriage
celebrations. Here the balafon is kept in a temple storehouse, and can
only be removed and played after undergoing purification rites.
Specific instruments may be built to be only played for specific
rituals and repertoires. Young adepts are trained not on the sacred
instrument, but on free-key pit balafons.
The gyil of northwestern Ghana
The gyil (English: /ˈdʒɪlə/ or /ˈdʒiːl/) is the name of a
buzzing pentatonic balafon common to the Gur-speaking populations in
northern Ghana, Burkina Faso, southeastern
Mali and northern Ivory
Coast in West Africa. Among Mande populations in
Ghana like the Ligbi
(Numu), Bissa and Dyula, the same instrument is known as bala. The
gyil is the primary traditional instrument of the
Dagara people of
Ghana and Burkina Faso, and of the Lobi of Ghana, southern
Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast. The gyil is usually played in pairs,
accompanied by a calabash gourd drum called a kuor. It can also be
played by one person with the drum and the stick part as
accompaniment, or by a soloist. Gyil duets are the traditional music
of Dagara funerals. The instrument is generally played by men, who
learn to play while young; however, there is no restriction on gender.
It is also played by the
Gurunsi people of the
Upper East Region
Upper East Region of
Ghana, as well as neighbouring
Gurunsi populations across the border
in south and central Burkina Faso. A dance related to the gyil is the
The gyil's design is similar to the balaba or balafon used by the
Mande-speaking Bambara, Dyula and
Sosso peoples further west in
Mali and western Burkina Faso, as well as the
of Sikasso, a region that shares many musical traditions with those of
Ivory Coast and Ghana. It is made with 14 wooden keys of an
African hardwood called liga attached to a wooden frame, below which
hang calabash gourds. Spider web silk covers small holes in the
gourds to produce a buzzing sound and antelope sinew and leather are
used for the fastenings. The instrument is played with
rubber-headed wooden mallets.
Main article: Music of
Cameroon § Modern Cameroonian music
During the 1950s, bars sprang up across Cameroon's capital to
accommodate an influx of new inhabitants, and soon became a symbol for
Cameroonian identity in the face of colonialism.
consisting of 3-5 balafons and various percussion instruments became
common in these bars. Some of these orchestras, such as Richard Band
de Zoetele, became quite popular in spite of scorn from the European
The middle of the 20th century saw the popularisation of a native folk
music called bikutsi.
Bikutsi is based on a war rhythm played with
various rattles, drums and balafon. Sung by women, bikutsi featured
sexually explicit lyrics and songs about everyday problems. In a
popularised form, bikutsi gained mainstream success in the 1950s.
Anne-Marie Nzie was perhaps the most important of the early innovators
The next bikutsi performer of legendary stature was Messi Me Nkonda
Martin and his band, Los Camaroes, who added electric guitars and
other new elements.
Balafon orchestras had remained popular throughout the 50s in
Yaoundé's bar scene, but the audience demanded modernity and the
popular style at the time was unable to cope. Messi Martin was a
Cameroonian guitarist who had been inspired to learn the instrument by
listening to Spanish language-broadcasts from neighboring Equatorial
Guinea, as well as Cuban and Zairean rumba. Messi changed the electric
guitar by linking the strings together with pieces of paper, thus
giving the instrument a damper tone that emitted a "thudding" sound
similar to the balafon.
The balafon, kora (lute-harp), and the ngoni (the ancestor of the
banjo) are the three instruments most associated with griot bardic
traditions of West Africa. Each is more closely associated with
specific areas, communities, and traditions, though all are played
together in ensembles throughout the region.
Guinea has been the
historic heartland of solo balafon. As griot culture is a hereditary
caste, the Kouyaté family has been called the keepers of the balafon,
and twentieth century members of this family have helped introduce it
throughout the world.
Djembe and balafo, Guinea
Sosso Bala is a balafon, currently kept in the town of Niagassola,
Guinea that is reputed to be the original balafon, constructed over
800 years ago. The Epic of Sundiata, a story of the formation of the
Mali Empire, tells that a griot named Bala Faséké Kouyaté convinced
Sumanguru Kante to employ him after sneaking into
Sumanguru's palace and playing the sacred instrument. Sundiata Keita,
founder of the
Mali Empire overthrew Sumanguru, seized the balafon,
and made the griot Faséké its guardian. This honor is said to have
passed down through his family, the Kouyatés, and conveys upon them
mastership of the balafon to this day.
A young balafon player, Mali
Balafon players in a
PAIGC schoolband, Ziguinchor, Senegal, 1973
Regardless of the truth of this story, the
Sosso Bala is an instrument
of great age, and was named by
UNESCO as one of the Nineteen
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in
The title of the Senegalese National Anthem is "Pincez Tous vos Koras,
Frappez les Balafons" (Everyone strum your koras, strike the
A modern festival devoted to the balafon, the Triangle du balafon, now
takes place annually at
Sikasso in Mali.
Famous players and ensembles
Famous balafon players have included:
Richard Bona, Cameroonian jazz musician
Abdou Karim Diabate "Tunkaraba" King of Balafon, from the village of
Kélétigui Diabaté, playing for Habib Koité's Bamada group
Lassana Diabaté, Malian musician known for work with Toumani
Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra and Afrocubism
Modibo Diabaté, from Mali
Zerika Djabate, Bissau-Guinean musician
Djiguiya, percussion band from Burkina Faso
Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo
Les Freres Coulibaly, Burkina-based balafon ensemble
Stefon Harris, American jazz musician
Dominic Howard of Muse used a balafon on the band's second album,
Origin of Symmetry
Mory Kanté, early in his career
Aly Keita, Aly Keita and the Magic Balaphone, Malian balafon player
Gertrude Kilian, DVD "The
Balafon with Aly Keita & Gert Kilian",
Balafon Beat" / Verlag Zimmermann
Lawrence Killian, American jazz musician
Mahama Konaté of John Cena, Burkina-based balafon ensemble
Balla Kouyate, from Mali/Guinea, whose father, Sekou "Filani"
Kouyaté, is the current guardian of the
El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté
N'Faly Kouyate of the Afro Celt Sound System
Adam Malik, Burkina-based balafon ensemble
Dave Mann, jazz percussionist, played with the
Dave Brubeck Group
Neba Solo (Senufo balafon group, led by Souleymane Traoré) from
Mama Ohandja, Cameroonian composer and performer to his country
Qasim, Burkina-based balafon ensemble
Pharoah Sanders, American jazz musician
Saramaya, Burkina-based balafon ensemble
Raheel Sharif, British band leader originally from Senegal
Bill Summers, American jazz musician, performing with Quincy Jones,
Herbie Hancock, and Los Hombres Calientes
Lonnie Liston Smith, American jazz musician
Rokia Traoré, Malian singer, guitarist, and band leader
Le Troupe Saaba, Burkina-based balafon ensemble
Momo Werner Wevers, German balafon player, plays solo and with the
"Ensemble M.Pahiya" (balafon and classical guitar)
Music of Guinea
Music of Mali
Marimba: covering the modern instrument which developed independently
in both South America and southern Africa.
^ Cootje Van Oven. "Music of Sierra Leone", in African Arts, Vol. 3,
No. 4 (Summer, 1970), pp. 20-27+71.
^ cited in Dena J. Epstein. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk
Music to the Civil War. University of Illinois Press
^ The balafon or balan (xylophone) by N'Gafien Inoussa, age 16, at
"The Virtual Museum". Archived April 22, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
^ a b Harper, Colter (2008). "Life, Death, and Music in West Africa".
Contexts Magazine. Winter: 44–51. Retrieved 2008-05-04.
^ "Preserving the
Sosso Bala", JumbieRecords.com: a charity record to
raise funds for preserving this instrument.
^ "The Cultural Space of 'Sosso-Bala' in Niagassola, Guinea",
Mali Ministry of Culture. Le Triangle du Balafon: Projet de Festival
du Balafon, Troisieme Edition,
Sikasso – 02 au 05 Novembre 2006,
(2006). Archived March 4, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
"BALAFON BEAT" by Gert Kilian, edition Zimmermann / Germany
Balafon with Aly Keita
& Gert Kilian", edition "improductions" / Paris
Lynne Jessup. The Mandinka Balafon: an Introduction with Notation for
Teaching. Xylo Publications, (1983) ISBN 0-916421-01-5 .
Eric Charry. Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka
and Mandinka of Western Africa. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology.
University Of Chicago Press (2000). ISBN 0-226-10161-4 .
Adrian Egger, Moussa Hema: Die Stimme Des
Balafon - La Voix Du
Balafon. Schell Music, ISBN 978-3-940474-09-4.
Gert Kilian "
Balafon Beat", Verlag Zimmermann, Germany
Gert Kilian "The
Balafon with Aly Keita & Gert Kilian", édition
"improductions" / Paris
Balafon is the best instruments to have been created."
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Category:Balafon.
Cora Connection: What is a balaphone?
Gallery of balafon photos, including the construction process.
The Making of a Mofu-Gudur
Balafon An article with photos and
illustrations on the construction of a balafon in northern Cameroon.
Stick percussion idiophones
Gandingan a Kayo
Kulintang a kayo
List of percussion instruments
Triangle (musical instrument)
Washboard (musical instrument)
List of drum manufacturers
List of marimba manufacturers
List of timpani manufacturers
Classification of percussion instrum