The wooden xylophone is one of Africa's most prominent
instruments and can be found in all parts of the continent. This
popular percussion instrument is
deeply rooted in the different cultures.
You are about to discover a surprising variety!
At first, their music may sound unusual to a Western ear, because the
African scales and techniques are different from what we are used to.
It is worth diving into this marvelous world. After all, the history of
the xylophone of the West includes these African ancestors.
xylophones come in many different sizes and styles. Generally though,
fire-dried wooden bars are mounted on a bamboo frame with the help of
Most often, some sort of resonator achieves a fuller and louder sound.
This is usually done with calabashes of various sizes attached under
the bars, but can even be just a hole dug in the ground.
This African percussion instrument is full of surprises. There may even
be some things that you didn't know about...
The Famous Balafon
The name Balafon commonly refers to the traditional xylophones of the
Malinke people, which are spread across several countries of West
Africa, such as Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast etc.
Image is a courtesy of
"Samm Bennet" on Flickr
The term "balafon" comes from the Malinke language and means "playing
the bala instrument". So actually, only "bala" refers to the instrument
You'll find different versions of this popular percussion instrument
among the Malinke peoples. For example:
The Bala of the Soussou in
The Sosso-Bala of the
Mandingue in Guinea
The Balo of the Mandingue
people in the Gambia
The Balujaa of the Balant in
Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia
The Balangui of the Susu in
The Baan (see below in detail)
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
you know that the Greek word "xylophone" means something like
"wooden voice"? That's exactly what it is for the Sambla people in
The Baan is a type
of Balafon and
of communication. Just like talking drums, it is able to
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:
What would you
say if you could speak through your instrument?
The Buzzing Gyil
The droning sound of the Gyil
in Ghana immediately got me hooked: I took lessons. But distracted by
children, drying laundry, clucking
chickens and Muslim prayer calls I admit I didn't advance all that
The Lobi, Sisala and Dagara people are the real masters of this buzzing
instrument. They use two basic versions: Traditionally, the kogyil
funerals, while the borgyil accompanies
Today, the Gyil
also makes a very cool addition to Ghana's neo-traditional music groups
like Hewale Sounds.
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:
No worries, your speakers work fine. The Gyil
actually sounds that cool!
The Spectacular Timbila Orchestra
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. Image how it must sound
when 30 of these amazing musicians play together!
four examples just give a taste of the rich variety of wooden
xylophones in Africa. 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 exploring on your own, here's something
to start with: