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A fixed-key balafon, showing resonators with membrane holes.
Other names bala, balaphone, Balani, Gyil, Balangi
Classification West African wooden Percussion idiophone with up to 21 keys
Related instruments
marimba, xylophone
N'Faly Kouyate
Switzerland Claude Luisier

The balafon (bala, balaphone) is a resonated frame, wooden keyed percussion idiophone of West Africa; part of the idiophone family of tuned percussion instruments that includes the xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, and the vibraphone. Sound is produced by striking the tuned keys with two padded sticks.


The instrument

Believed to have been developed independently of the Southern African and South American instruments 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[1] and the Gyil of the Dagara, Lobi and Gurunsi from Ghana, Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire. similar instruments are played in parts of Central Africa, with the ancient Kingdom of Kongo denoting the instrument as palaku.



Balafon: padded sticks

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.

Fixed-key variations

In a fixed-key balafon, the keys are suspended by leather straps on to a wooden frame, under which are calabash gourd resonators of graduated sizes. A small hole in each gourd is covered with a membrane made of a thin spider's egg case filament (though today these are usually made of cigarette paper or thin plastic), resulting in a continuous nasal buzzing sound. Balafons are played sitting down or, by attaching a strap to the frame, they can be played while standing.

Performance variations

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.

Often balafon players will wear belled bracelets on each wrist, accentuating the sound of the keys.

Modern balafon styles

Children from Burkina Faso performing in Warszawa, 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.


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. Balafon orchestras, 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 elite.

The middle of the 20th century saw the popularization 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 popularized 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.

History and culture

A young balafon player, Mali

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.


In the Malinké language Balafon is a compound of two words: Balan is the name of the instrument and is the verb to play. Balafon therefore is really the act of playing the Bala.[2]

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.

Griot balafonists of Guinea

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.

Sacred ritual usage

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 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.[3]

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.[4]

Historical records and diaspora encounters

Records of the Balafon go back to at least the 12th century CE. In 1352 CE, Morroccan traveller Ibn Battuta reported the existence of the ngoni and balafon at the court of Malian ruler Mansa Musa.

European visitors to West Africa described balafons in the 17th century largely unchanged from 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.[5]


  • A modern festival devoted to the balafon, the Triangle du balafon, now takes place annually at Sikasso in Mali.[6]

Famous players

Famous balafon players have included:

  • Momo Werner Wevers German balafon player, plays solo and with the "Ensemble M.Pahiya" (balafon and classical guitar)
  • Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo

See also


  1. ^ Cootje Van Oven. Music of Sierra Leone, in African Arts, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Summer, 1970), pp. 20-27+71.
  2. ^ The balafon or balan (xylophone) by N'Gafien Inoussa, age 16, at "The Virtual Museum".
  3. ^ Preserving the Sosso Bala at a charity record to raise funds for preserving this instrument.
  4. ^ UNESCO: The Cultural Space of ‘Sosso-Bala’ in Niagassola, Guinea.
  5. ^ cited in Dena J. Epstein. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. University of Illinois Press (1977).
  6. ^ Mali Ministry of Culture. Le Triangle du Balafon: PROJET DE FESTIVAL DU BALAFON TROISIEME EDITION SIKASSO – 02 au 05 novembre 2006, (2006).

Further reading

  • Lynne Jessup. The Mandinka Balafon: an Introduction with Notation for Teaching. Xylo Publications, (1983) ISBN 0916421015 .
  • 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 0226101614 .
  • Adrian Egger, Moussa Hema: Die Stimme Des Balafon - La Voix Du Balafon. Schell Music, ISBN 978-3940474094

External links


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