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The Melodic Sounds of the West African Balafon

You may recognize the fast-paced, upbeat rhythm in the video above as the Kuku rhythm, one of the most popular djembe rhythms due to its joyous, celebratory sound. But do you recognize the instrument providing the melody? Looks like a xylophone, right? While the instrument you see in the video is a kind of wooden xylophone, it’s actually a West African percussion idiophone called a balafon and originates in Mali.

Used to play melodic tunes, the balafon features 16 to 27 tuned wooden keys played with with two rubber or padded mallets. They keys are strung over a fixed frame and resonators made from hollowed out and dried calabashes or placed independently on any padded surface. That second form, known as free-key, makes the balafon a versatile, travel-friendly instrument that’s perfect for an on-the-spot jam session since it’s easy to carry around in free-key form. However, when playing on a fixed-key balafon (the one with the resonators), you’ll get that nasal-buzz timbre that’s characteristic of the instrument.

The balafon was traditionally a sacred instrument played only by trained and skilled caste members at certain traditional and ritual occasions, including funerals, weddings, and festivals. Depending on the culture of a certain area, the balafon is played solo, in an orchestra of six balafons, or in an ensemble of three balafons. Some balafon players will also wear belled bracelets on their wrists to accentuate the balafon’s sounds. However, as seen in the video above, the balafon can also be played with other West African percussion instruments. While some cultures still play the balafon under traditional circumstances, the balafon is no longer limited to certain people and occasions and is played by percussionists around the world.

8th May 2014 Kaitlin Meilert

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