The African balafon is the traditional xylophone of the Mande people in West Africa. The original name of the percussion instrument is bala, while the term "balafon" actually means "playing the bala instrument".
Every Mande balafon that exists today originates from one particular instrument, the Sosso Bala.
Let's go back to the early years of the 13th century and meet Soumaoro KantÃ©: He was a sorcerer and tyrannical king of the Susu people in the area of modern Guinea. (The Susu are a subgroup of the Mande ethnic group in West Africa.)
After bargaining with Jinna Maghan, the king of the jinns (supernatural spirits), Soumaoro received their sacred instrument: the Sosso Bala, a wooden xylophone with supernatural powers.
Soumaoro used the Sosso Bala as an oracle. Through it he would gain information about the future, which gave him an advantage in war and battles.
The balafon made the king unbeatable and he kept the power of the Sosso Balaselfishly to himself. Nobody else was allowed to touch the sacred instrument.
Balafaseke Kouyate was a jeli (called griot in French) in the service of a Malinke man called Sunjata Keita. (The Malinke are another subgroup of the Mande ethnic group.) One day, he sneaked into the Susu king's palace. He was immediately drawn to the Sosso Bala and started playing it.
King Soumaoro with his supernatural connection to the Sosso Bala, felt that his instrument had been touched and went to check. Being caught in the act, the griot quickly improvised a praise song to the Susu king.
The king was deeply impressed by Balafaseke's playing and very pleased about the praising. Instead of punishing him, he spared his life and kept him in his service.
From now on, Balafaseke was the only person authorized to play the sacred Sosso Bala in order to praise and glorify the king's accomplishments.
Of course, by being able to play the Sosso Bala, the griot also gained control over the supernatural powers of the Susu king. The same griot who was still in the service of another increasingly powerful man: Sunjata Keita.
No wonder Sunjata Keita was able to defeat the Susu king with his Mande army in 1236. As a result, he founded the great Mali Empire to unify all Mande peoples. He took the Sosso Bala as a war trophy and Balafaseke Kouyate continued serving him as his personal jeli.
Every existing African balafon today has its origin in the Sunjata epic.
The Sosso Bala transformed from being a tool of oppression in the hands of a tyrant to a tool of cultural healing in the hands of Sunjata Keita and his griot. It has become a symbol of unity and freedom of the Mande peoples.
The original Sosso Bala has been preserved by the Kouyate family even when the Mande Empire started falling apart and during the difficult colonial times. The over 800-year-old instrument is now a national treasure in Guinea and still reminds the Mande of their glorious past.
Even today, the African balafon tradition continues to play an important part to preserve the cultural identity of the Mande peoples in West Africa.
You'll also find African xylophone videos and portraits on this site.