Resource 6: Traditional musical instruments

Background information / subject knowledge for teacher

The balafon (or ‘bala’) is a resonated frame xylophone of West Africa. It is a lamellophone with wooden keys. There are many different balafons in Africa. They fall into two main categories: the free-key type, in which the keys are independent of one another and of their supports, and those with fixed keys, in which the keys are permanently strung together and attached to their support. In the free-key balafons, the loose keys are assembled on temporary supports; for example, the player’s legs, banana-tree trunks, straw bundles or logs padded with grass. The fixed- key balafons are generally mounted on or suspended from a frame, with or without calabash resonators. balafogr.jpg [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Accessed 2008)

The keys themselves are suspended over the resonators by means of two lines of twisted leather cord, which pass through two ‘vibration knots’. Each key has its own particular length, width and thickness. The keys are struck with two beaters with rounded ends, formed by winding the tips with rubber strips.

Playing techniques

The balafon reproduces the timbres and tonalities of the spoken language. A tonal language is one expressing difference of meaning by variation of tone. Thus, the same word pronounced at different pitches will have a different meaning.

If the musician plays and sings:

  • the balafon repeats a phrase that has been sung; or
  • the singing repeats a phrase that has been played; or
  • the same phrase is played and sung simultaneously. In this case, as the balafon playing is faster than speech, the musician performs melodic phrases to fill in. For this, each interpreter develops his own particular formulas. These formulas may sometimes be as simple as the repetition of a single note.

If the musician plays without singing, he expresses himself in a coded manner by transferring his speech to the balafon.

Balafons are played alone or in pairs, with or without accompaniment from other instruments. Some pieces may be played by two, or even three or four players on the same instrument. One or two of the keys of the balafon are sometimes struck rhythmically with the handle of the beater or with wooden sticks.

Adapted from: balafon.html (Accessed 2008)

Yusuf Ahmed, Balafon Musician from N. Ghana with Balafon 22/06/07)

Resource 5: Ideas for judging each instrument