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date: 08 December 2019

Balo [bala, balafou, balafon]locked

  • K.A. Gourlay
  •  and Lucy Durán


[bala, balafou, balafon]

A gourd-resonated frame Xylophone of the Manding peoples of West Africa, found in the Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali and northern Côte d’Ivoire. Possibly the earliest reference to the instrument is that of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who visited the court of Mali in 1352 and saw an instrument ‘made from reeds, and provided with gourds below them’. In 1620, the British gold-prospector Richard Jobson described the ballards, the principal instrument of the Gambia, as having 17 keys with gourds suspended beneath them from iron rods. The player used a beater in each hand, the end of which was covered with ‘soft stuff’, and the instrument was played to accompany dancing. In the 1790s, Mungo Park described the Mandingo balafou as having 20 hardwood keys with ‘shells of gourds hung underneath to increase the sound’.

The contemporary instrument has 17 to 19 keys strung together on a frame with a gourd resonator beneath each. The keys are from 27·5 to 40 cm long, 2·5 to 4 cm wide and less than 2·5 cm deep; the undersides and ends are thinned for tuning. The instrument is tuned to an apparent equitonal heptatonic scale and has an approximate range of 2·5 octaves. It is played exclusively by professional male musicians and is used to accompany praisesongs; its repertory is almost identical to that of the ...

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