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Balafon , also bala, balo, balafou, balangi , is a xylophone with suspended calabashes as resonators , which is widespread in West Africa.

The tradition of Sosso-bala , venerated by the Malinke as the oldest balafon, has been included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for Guinea .

Origin and Distribution

Sosso-bala (original balafon) from Niagassola

The name "balafon" for the usually in the region bala or balo -called instrument is probably an adaptation to European languages in conjunction with the Greek word element phon ( "voice sound") or could be on the Manding term bala fo ( " bala play “) Go back. The first known description of the instrument comes from Ibn Battūta , who stayed at the court of the medieval Mali Empire in 1352 . In 1620, the English explorer and prospector Richard Jobson mentioned an instrument called ballards from Gambia with 17 sound plates and calabashes hung from the bottom . According to Mungo Park's description in the 1790s, the Mandinka balafou had 20 hardwood sound bars .

According to a historical myth of griots in Mali, the holy Sosso-bala dates from the 13th century. After the fall of the Gana Empire in the 12th century, Soumaoro Kanté took over control of the capital Koumbi Saleh from the Sosso Empire in 1190 and benefited from the power vacuum in the region. According to the descriptions he established a terror regime and subjugated the population. Soumaoro came from the blacksmith's caste associated with magical practices. According to legend, he was shown a huge balafon in 1205, which was supposed to increase his strength. He got hold of it and prepared to attack the small Manding country with the capital Niani . This in turn was weakened because the rightful heir to the throne Sundiata Keïta had been driven into exile by his half-brother Dankaran Touma. In 1235 the adult Sundiata returned and defeated the adversary in the Battle of Kirina. The magic balafon Sosso-bala went to Sundiata as spoils of war, who handed it over to his loyal court musician Balla Fasséké Kouyaté. Since then it has always been with the oldest surviving descendants of Balla Fasséké Kouyaté. Currently this is El Hadji Sékou Kouyaté (* around 1924) in Niagassola (in northeast Guinea on the border with Mali). According to the family, it should still be in its original state, only the cords are regularly replaced. The original Soumaoro belt, spear and cap have also been preserved.

The village of Tabato in Guinea-Bissau is also known , where its own balafon tradition has been preserved since 1870 and all residents play the balafon. The village was the subject of two films by Angolan-Portuguese director João Viana in 2013 . The Canadian ethnomusicologist Sylvain Panneton published a study on the Tabato balafon in the Soronda journal in the early 1990s . Then the tabato balafon player Umar traveled to Montreal and taught the balafon at a university there for nine months. Umar is the younger brother of Tcherno Djabaté, a balafon player in Tabato who has performed in China and Korea. Tcherno is the son of the important balafon player Djali Ba Koli Djabaté, whose father Bunun Ka Djabaté was honored for his balafon playing at the 1940 colonial exhibition in Lisbon.

Design and style of play

The balafon consists of wooden chime bars and calabashes - hollow pumpkins that serve as resonance bodies. Two or three finger-thick holes are drilled into the sides of the calabashes, over which cobwebs or bat wings are glued (cigarette paper is becoming increasingly common today). These Mirlitons are set in vibration by the resonance and start to purr.

The chime bars and their resonators are held together by a frame made of split bamboo and goat skin strips. Today's balafons differ considerably in their size, number of sound bars (between 12 and 23) and their mood. The pitch range is usually two and a half to three and a half octaves; Probably the largest balafon of the Sembla speakers in western Burkina Faso with 23 sound plates and a range of over four octaves. The most widespread are pentatonic tuned balafons, heptatonic balafons may only be played by male griots.

The Sosso-bala has an equidistant heptatonic mood. It's not that far from diatonic. Many of the players of the Kouyaté clan also transfer the melodies to C or F balafones. The women sing the traditional songs. The centers of balafon music today are Guinea and Mali. There, the griot game tradition is passed on primarily within the Kouyaté family. In the second half of the 20th century, the way of playing was further developed by Kélétigui Diabaté in particular .


  • KA Gourlay, Lucy Durán, Rainer Polak: Bala (i). In: Laurence Libin (Ed.): The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York 2014, pp. 180f

Web links

Commons : Balafon  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Cultural space of Sosso-Bala. UNESCO
  2. ^ KA Gourlay, Lucy Durán, Rainer Polak: Bala, 2014, p. 180
  3. Ursula Branscheid-Kouyaté, Mamadi Kouyaté: Djembé - Kora - Balafon.
  4. Aldeia guineense de Tabatô está em destaque na Berlinale - "Guinea-Bissau village Tabatô presented at the Berlinale" , article from February 14, 2013 of the Portuguese-language Deutsche Welle , accessed on January 23, 2018
  5. TABATO, A TABANCA DOS DJIDIUS - "Tabato, the village of Djidius" , article from June 24, 2016 on the Guinea-Bissau music portal, accessed on January 23, 2018
  6. A Family of Djelis. ( Memento of October 22, 2013 in the Internet Archive )
  7. Balafon master has his hands on a legacy. The Boston Globe, December 6, 2009