The ancestor of the modern marimba, the balafon is a wooden xylophone with hand-carved keys, having hollow gourds suspended underneath and open at their tops for resonance. It is played with sticks that usually have rubber tips formed by wrapping strips of inner tube around the ends. The keys are mounted in such a way as to have minimal and precise contact with the frame of the instrument, and no contact with each other, so as to produce a freely-ringing tone. The keys rest on their nodal points, about 20% in from the ends, to foster unimpeded vibration.

A large balafon may have as many as 21 keys; a small one may have only 8. Each key is a slightly different length, with the longer keys producing the deeper tones.


From "The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings" by Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, and from "The Mandinka Balafon: An introduction With Notation for Teaching" by Lynne Jessup

The word "balafon" is from "bala" (wood) and "fo" (to speak) and is used by the Mande people in West Africa. The balafon is common throughout western Africa, especially in Guinea, Senegal, and Mali. According to legend, a king of the Sousou people in West Africa saw and heard the balafon in his dream and made the first one when he awoke. Similarities in construction and tuning suggests that such wooden xylophones originated in Indonesia and Borneo and were carried from there to Africa. When the slave trade spread African culture to South and Central America, the balafon was carried along and became the marimba.


Balafons are made both in pentatonic and heptatonic varieties. The heptatonic scale of the Mande balafon is quite close to the equidistant heptatonic scale and very different from the typical 7-note major or minor scales of Western music. Since balafon makers tune their instruments by ear, without the aid of tuning forks, etc., there is some variety in the scales used, and the notes don't come out precisely equidistant. For example, the fourth and fifth of the scale are usually closer to the Western fourth and fifth than a pure equidistant tuning would dictate. Pentatonic balafons are found in parts of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Removing wood from the ends of a balafon key will raise its pitch; removing wood from the middle on the underside will make the pitch lower.

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