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What is the Balafon?

If you are interested in learning world percussion music, you might have heard of the balafon. Another name for the balafon is ‘bala’ or ‘balphone’. The xylophone is like an idiophone, which makes sounds through vibration. The balafon is part of the xylophone family in the West. The balafon is associated with the Griot, who is a West African historian, storyteller, singer, musician, and poet of the oral tradition. The griot family is a hereditary tradition found in West Africa and in The Gambia, and many of them played not just the balafon but also the kora or African harp.

The Origin of the Balafon

The balafon is said to be associated with the formation of the Mandinka Empire. King Sunjata had united the warring tribes in the 13th to 14th century and created an era of peace and prosperity. Legend has it that the first balafon was given by a spirit to King Sunjata. During this time in The Gambia, there were the griots who were the court musicians of the Mandinka Empire. A version of the story talked about Kante, or ‘bala konte’ who upon losing his name, was given the name of balafon instead and he was an important player of this instrument in the court of King Sunjata.

Historical documents dating back to 1353 revealed that the Balafon was discovered by a Moroccan traveller who reported to the then Mali court leaders as an instrument to be used. Years later, it was recorded in the Virginia Gazette that African American artists played an instrument called the “barrafoo” in 1776, which resembled the balafon.

How was the Balafon Made?

The balafon is made from a bamboo frame with wooden keys. Originally, rosewood was used but due to its scarcity, hardwoods are used to substitute it. The wood is then kiln-baked to dry it out. Much skill and craftwork are required to make the balafon as there were no small hand tools when it was invented. The keys were hewn out with an adze or any ‘big knife’ that is available. There are generally 21 jets but the balafon, like koras and other hand-made traditional instruments, vary slightly, and sometimes there are 22 keys. The frame looks like that of a xylophone. Gourds are then attached underneath the balafon to add resonance and these provide amplifiers to the sound.

The Modern Balafon

The griots, or hereditary musicians pass down the skills of playing an instrument from father to son. Women were allowed to play but very occasionally is the skill passed down to a daughter. The group serves their society by keeping a record of lineages and histories. With the introduction of writing rather than depending on the oral tradition, the function of the griots has changed but still commands great respect in the modern Gambian society. The griots are more commonly known as Jellis. The balafon is played more widely than it used to be either on its own or with the kora.

With new instruments going in and out of fashion, the balafon is still as popular as ever and carries the pride of African music.

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