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What Is an African Xylophone?

An African xylophone, known as a balafon, is a resonant musical treasure steeped in tradition. Crafted with wooden bars atop calabash gourds, it produces a rich, melodic sound that's integral to West African culture. Each hand-crafted instrument tells a story of heritage and artistry. Discover how the balafon's rhythmic heartbeat continues to pulse through the fabric of African music. Ready to explore its vibrant legacy?
R. Stamm
R. Stamm

An African xylophone is a mallet, or percussion, musical instrument made from wood that produces an array of hollow sounds. Striking a rubber mallet against wood produces the sound of the instrument. The size and number of keys on the xylophone vary depending upon the African country that produces it. Typically, the males in African villages play the instrument even though there are no gender restrictions. The instrument may have only one or multiple players, and it is used for a variety of tribal dances or rituals.

Early versions of the African xylophone were made by stringing wood and gourds together. Villagers roasted wood and shaped individual bars to achieve the desired tone. After they shaped the wood, they carefully chose gourds, or resonators, to accompany the size of the wooden bars and achieve the necessary key. They collected the wasp wax and used it to adjust the key tone of the instrument at the mouth of the resonator. Villagers collected the rubbery leaves from wild, creeping plants, and used them to make the mallets used for striking the wood.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

The term xylophone means “wooden sound,” and the African xylophone is named for the sound it produces. The length of the wooden bars determines the pitch with longer bars producing lower tones and shorter bars producing higher tones. The mallets used to play the xylophone also affect the sound the instrument produces. Softer mallets produce a round timbre and a gentle sound while harder mallets produce a bright, shrill timbre.

The African xylophone has an obscure history dating back to ancient periods. Certain scholars assert that ancient, African and Asian societies invented versions of the xylophone without the influence of the other. Evidence supports that the xylophone originated in Southeast Asia. In 500 A.D., Asian peoples entered Africa, bringing the xylophone with them. Many scholars are likely to believe the second version due to the similarities between the East Asian xylophone and the African xylophone.

African villagers used the xylophone for various ceremonial purposes. Often, villagers used the xylophone in large orchestras or ensembles consisting of other wooden and gourd instruments. They played the instrument at tribal dances to reenact musically historical events or to pass along tribal tales. They also used the xylophone on celebratory occasions, such as weddings, religious ceremonies, or war dances. In funerals or other mournful events, one person plays the xylophone using the softer tones of the instrument to convey sadness.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an African xylophone called?

The African xylophone is commonly referred to as the balafon or bala in West Africa, particularly in regions such as Mali and Guinea. It is a traditional percussion instrument that consists of wooden bars struck by mallets, each bar producing a different pitch. The balafon is often considered a key instrument in West African music and is used in various cultural expressions, ceremonies, and storytelling.

How does the African xylophone differ from the Western xylophone?

The African xylophone, or balafon, differs from the Western xylophone in several ways. Firstly, the materials used are often locally sourced, with the bars made from different types of wood and the resonators traditionally crafted from gourds. Secondly, the tuning system can vary, with the balafon using a heptatonic scale that may not align with the Western chromatic scale. Additionally, the playing technique and the role of the instrument in social and ceremonial contexts are distinct to African cultures.

What types of music are African xylophones used in?

African xylophones are used in a variety of musical genres, including traditional folk music, ceremonial music, and contemporary African music. They play a significant role in griot storytelling traditions, where they accompany narrations of history and folklore. The balafon is also integral to West African dance music and has been incorporated into various fusion and world music projects, showcasing its versatility across different musical styles.

Are there different types of African xylophones?

Yes, there are different types of African xylophones, each with unique characteristics and regional variations. For example, the amadinda and akadinda are prominent in Uganda, while the gyil is found among the Lobi people of Ghana and Burkina Faso. These instruments vary in size, number of bars, tuning systems, and the presence or absence of resonators, reflecting the diverse musical traditions across the African continent.

How is the African xylophone constructed and what materials are used?

The construction of an African xylophone involves crafting wooden bars that are tuned to specific pitches and are often made from woods like rosewood or padauk. These bars are then suspended over resonators, which are traditionally hollowed-out gourds with spider web membranes stretched over the openings to enhance the sound. The instrument is played with mallets that can be made from wood or rubber, depending on the desired tone quality.

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Discussion Comments


While length of key is one determinant of pitch, most "African xylophone" (marimba, balafon, etc.) keys are also significantly thinned in the middle to lower their pitch.

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