This traditional proto-xylophone is made from West African hardwood and is considered by some cultures to be at the heart of the Malinke origin story. It represents spirituality, joy, truth and an unwavering moral compass. These are tools essential to fulfilling one’s life purpose fully and exquisitely.
The Balafon is believed to be a bridge between the sacred and the secular realms and according to traditional wisdom connects the worlds of the Numu and the Jeli.
The Balafon is also a symbol of the transfer of power.
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.
Believed to have been developed independently of the Southern African and South American instruments now called the marimba, oral histories of the balophon 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 denoting the instrument as palaku.
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 Musa.
The Sosso Bala
The 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 Kouyate convinced Sosso king 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.
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 in 2001
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 7). 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 frame).
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 Guinea and 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 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.