The Wooden Xylophone

One Of Africa's Central Instruments

african xylophone
Image is a courtesy of
"emaho" on

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.

General Construction

African xylophones come in many different sizes and styles. Generally though, fire-dried wooden bars are mounted on a bamboo frame with the help of leather strings.

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 itself.

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

  • The Bala of the Soussou in Guinea
  • 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 Sierra Leone
  • 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

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:

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 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, 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

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. Image 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 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:

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

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