Type: Idiophones > Percussion > Xylophones.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 111.212
Country: Mali, Guinea, Many, ETC.
Region: West Africa.
Description: The balafon is a xylophone, a struck idiophone that is in pitch and utilizes gourds as a resonance chamber. It is closely associated with the Mandé peoples of West Africa, particularly the Guinean branch of the Mandinka ethnic group. But is now found across West Africa from Guinea to Mali. Its common name, balafon, is likely a European coinage combining its Mandinka name bala with the word fôn ‘to speak’ or the Greek root phono.
Etymology: In the Malinké language the name ‘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 of 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 region.
History: It’s believed the balafon had developed independently of the 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 denoting the instrument as palaku.
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.
As the cultures who play the balafon vary across west Africa, as does the approach to playing the instrument its self. 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 still is a sacred instrument, playable only by trained religious caste members and only at ritual events such as festivals, royal, funeral 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.
Exposure Outside Africa: The balafon has seen a resurgence since the 1980s in the growth of African 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.
Citations: Bibliography: Lynne Jessup, The Mandinka Balafon: an introduction with notation for teaching 1983 University of Michigan ISBN 091642104X, 9780916421045 ; Eric Charry ~ Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa. University of Chicago Press ISBN 9780226101620 Websites: