Instruments from Africa: Balafon

Beating at the heart of tropical music is the ever-popular xylophone, the typically wooden piano that makes sounds familiar with beach days and tropical flower shirts. There are numerous versions of xylophones in existence, but only one is the most popular in Africa. The Balafon.

Dated as early as the 12th century, the Balafon is one of the most iconic instruments in African musical history and is still being used today. Stroll alongside the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, and you will surely hear this amazing instrument making beautiful music in the hands of South African artists. Today, we look at where the Balafon came from, what it is made of, and why it is so popular in African musical history.

Man playing the balafon, an African musical instrument

Origins of the Balafon

The Balafon is believed to have been developed in the 12th century in the Southern Africa region during the rise of the Mali Empire. It has entertained crowds throughout the history of Southern and West Africa, growing in popularity across the African continent.

Historical documents dating back to 1353 state that the Balafon was discovered by a Moroccan traveller who reported it to the then Mali court leaders as an instrument to use. Years later, the Virginia Gazette recorded that African American artists played an instrument called the "barrafoo” in 1776, which seemed highly similar to the Balafon.

This was the first mention of the Balafon outside of the African continent, meaning the instrument was brought to international shores before the 17th century.

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Components of the Balafon

The Balafon is made using various types of wood. Bene wood and bamboo are some of the most popular materials, as they are known to be highly durable and flexible. The wood is shaved down to the right key size and then dried over a slow burning fire. The second component of the Balafon are calabashes, each calabash has its top removed and hollowed out. It is then left to dry for a few days, cleaned, and dried again.

The instrument usually consisting of 17 to 21 keys placed in parallel to one another to form a piano-like shape, each key will have its own calabash, which is tied down beneath it.The wooden keys are tied down using streaks of bamboo, wood, or grass. Some versions are even made using animal hair, particularly from bulls, as bull hair was durable and long enough to tie the keys down.

The calabash tied beneath creates a resonating sound once the artists hit the key. The tools used to hit the keys are made from various materials. Some preferred using rocks tied onto sticks, others used cloth and hair manipulated into a hammer-like shape.

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The Balafon in Modern Times

With new instruments coming in and out of fashion, the Balafon (or xylophone in other parts) is still as popular as ever. Whether it is called the Balafon, Balaphone, or simply the Bala as known in Guinea, it carries the pride of African music with each key played.