African Xylophone Cultures

African xylophone instruments exist in many different forms and with lots of names. It can be found in all parts of Africa. Actually, it is even one of the most prominent ethnic musical instruments on the continent.

At first, African xylophone music may sound unusual to a Western ear, because the African scales and techniques are different from what we are used to. But it is worth diving into this marvelous world. After all, Western xylophone history includes these African ancestors. 

This African percussion instrument is full of surprises. There may even be some things that you didn't know about...

The Famous Balafon

The African balafon is the traditional xylophone of the Mande people, which are spread across several countries of West Africa, such as Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Gambia and the Ivory Coast etc. 

Image is a courtesy of "emaho" on Flickr

You'll find different versions of this popular percussion instrument among the Mande peoples. For example: 

  • The Sosso Bala
  • The Bala of the Soussou in Guinea
  • The Balo of the Mandinka people in the Gambia
  • The Balujaa of the Balant in Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia
  • The Balangui of the Susu in Sierra Leone
  • The Baan (see below in detail)

  • To better understand why their instrument has been so important to the cultural identity of the Mande people, read about African balafon history - The Sosso Bala.

    Because this Malinke term is well known in the West, we often assume that Balafon is the name for all African xylophones. In reality though, there is a large number of other African tribes with long traditions, that are just as interesting and important. 

    Let's discover a few:

    The Talking Baan

    Did you know that the Greek word "xylophone" means something like "wooden voice"? That's exactly what it is for the Sambla people in Burkina Faso:

    The Baan is a type of Balafon and an instrument of communication. Just like talking drums, it is able to speak. What you think is just an interesting melody, is in reality the musical imitation of the villager's Sambla language. Everything the villagers talk about can also be said through the Baan. 

    This 23-key xylophone with pentatonic tuning is played by three people at the same time. The accompaniment and the bass player support the soloist, who speaks through the instrument:

    He may complain about being hungry and ask you for money to buy food. The children of the village learn the language of the Baan at the same time as they learn to speak.

    Samadou Coulibaly explains the Baan in this video. A friendly little documentary worth watching:

    The Buzzing Gyil

    The droning sound of the Gyil in Ghana immediately got me hooked: I took lessons. But distracted by running children, drying laundry, clucking chickens and Muslim prayer calls I admit I didn't advance all that much. 
    The Lobi, Sisala and Dagara people are the real masters of this buzzing instrument. They use two basic versions: Traditionally, the kogyil is played at funerals, while the borgyil accompanies festivals.

    Today, this African xylophone also makes a very cool addition to Ghana's neo-traditional music groups.

    The unusual buzzing sound of the Gyil is no accident. It is achieved by drawing the net of spider cocoons over wholes in the resonating gourds. The builder "hangs" the 14 wooden bars over the frame to allow them to vibrate freely. Most Gyils are tuned in the pentatonic scale.

    Aaron Bebe Sukura demonstrates the traditional piece "yanyakole". He plays slow enough for a student to follow and then speeds up and improvises in the second half of the video:

    The Spectacular Timbila Orchestra

    The Timbila music of the Chopi tribe is the recognized national music of Mozambique. It is one of the most spectacular and complex artistic expressions to be found on the African continent.

    The Timbila comes in many different sizes and ranges of pitch. A traditional orchestra can be composed of up to 30(!) Timbilas. 

    It is common that masters and apprentices, young kids and grandfathers play alongside each other. The amazing seven year old boy in this video is no exception: 

    This is a performance of an 11-piece orchestra. Imagine how it must sound when 30 of these amazing musicians play together! 

    Further Resources

    Above four examples just give a taste of the rich variety of the African xylophone. In reality, I could add a long list of other ones played by the many different tribes on the continent.

    If you'd like to keep researching on your own, here's something to start with:

    • The Shilimba of the Lozi in Zambia
    • The Palaku of central Africa
    • The Mbaire of the Basoga in Uganda
    • The Aso or Doso of the Benin Torinou