Listening In, Understanding More: the balafon

When reading articles and stories about new music and sounds, it’s so important to actually do the listening as well as the reading. Otherwise it’s like reading about a sport without ever moving and putting the words into practice – how else are you really supposed to understand how to play the game, or understand how an instrument sounds in context?

An earlier article on this site introduced the perplexing balafon, the wooden xylophone-like instrument closely associated with the African Mandinka ethnic group. This article will focus on listening to the balafon in traditional and revolutionary contexts. Focusing on three musicians and their confounding use of the balafon in different styles and genres, this article aims to inspire you to listen and engage with the instrument on a different level. Have a listen and please discuss any other balafon music you discover after pondering here.

Spotlight #1 : Kélétigui Diabaté

To begin our venture into the different musical settings in which the balafon dwells, let’s first examine the music of balafon aficionado, Kélétigui Diabaté. Born in 1931, the Malian musician grew up in a rich musical tradition as a member of the Diabaté family, a family well-known for their musical capabilities and heritage. A musical child, Kélétigui learned to play guitar and saxophone, as well as his own homemade balafon, created from pieces of bamboo which he tuned himself.

When Mali gained independence in 1960, Kélétigui hit the state-commissioned dance band scene as a founding member of L’Orchestre National “A” de la République de Mali, also known as Formation A. He joined this band as a guitarist, touring across Senegal and the Ivory Coast. This tour would lead him to meeting and joining Salif Keita’s Les Ambassadeurs. Here, Kélétigui played with the likes of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and the famous singer Ella Fitzgerald. As a result, he would develop his unique style of balafon playing, combining the traditional heritage sounds with jazz and soul.

Listening In: “Sontaoula”, from “Sandiya”, Kélétigui Diabaté, 2004.

Despite his vast performance career in a wide range of bands and ensembles, Kélétigui Diabaté only recorded one solo album, late in his life in 2004. This album, “Sandiya”, features an assortment of guest artists and musicians from throughout his life, including Malian kora master Toumani Diabaté and Kélétigui’s own son, Fassery Diabaté.

Infusing traditional melodies with popular genres

Midway through this beautiful solo album is a beautiful duet between Kélétigui Dibaté and guitarist Djelymadi Tounkara, titled “Sontaoula”. This track highlights the exceptional work of both musicians in combining contemporary jazz and world music influences into their ancestral traditions. Tounkara’s musical journey is also noteworthy, as he infuses traditional melodies with popular genres throughout his music, including his work with American rapper Common on the brilliant “Red Hot and Riot” album.

Listening to this track, it’s brilliant to really hear the hollow, warm sound of the repeating balafon ostinato, and how it creates an ambient atmosphere for Tounkara to attune to. The balafon both accompanies and solos during this piece – listen to the beautiful right hand counter-melody Diabaté uses to introduce his solo towards the end of the piece, around the 3 minute timestamp. There’s a sense of mutuality between the artists, as they both incorporate elements of blues and pop-inspired riffs into their gentle solos. This element of mutuality, of two musicians coming together with a similar purpose, is a recurring theme in this peaceful acoustic album.

Spotlight #2: Danny Elfman

Probably better known for his grandiose, award-winning film scores including Tim Burton’s Batman and Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, it’s easy to forget where we first met Danny Elfman. Let’s jump back to the 80’s and to Oingo Boingo, where we find Elfman encouraging the balafon’s diaspora into the American experimental music scene.

Like Kélétigui, Danny Elfman also fell into musical crowds as a child. After finishing his education, Elfman decided to follow his brother, who moved to France to perform with an avant-garde theatre group. Inspired to pursue music, Elfman embarked on a ten-month self-guided tour through Africa, busking and collecting a range of West African percussion instruments. On this trip he would meet and fall in love with our percussion protagonist, the balafon.

On returning to Los Angeles after his African tour in the early 70s, Elfman was invited by this aforementioned brother to serve as the musical director of his street theatre performance art troupe. This project would later become the well-known experimental group Oingo Boingo. Armed with a whole array of African influences, Elfman excitedly joined.

Listening In: “Grey Matter”, from “Nothing to Fear”, Oingo Boingo, 1982.

Taken from their 1982 “Nothing to Fear” album, “Grey Matter” perfectly depicts Danny Elfman’s incorporation of the balafon in this new-wave synth pop. Elfman’s handmade balafon, often making live appearances, is the centre-piece to this track, taking both driving rhythmic and energetic solo roles.

Listen to how Elfman sits in both roles: compare his repeated octave crotchets in the opening to his bright quavers that lead the transitions and respond to Elfman’s own lead vocals. Don’t forget to check out the impressive balafon solo before the contrasting bridge passage where Elfman is allowed to demonstrate skills trained on his pilgrimage. As both a rhythm and lead instrument, the balafon certainly dominates this upbeat voyage through the new-wave, punk and ska sounds explored in this track.

Spotlight #3: Alphonse Daudet Touna and Hélélé

To end our trilogy of spotlighted balafon players, let’s look at a musician that’s recently made waves in introducing the South West dance band scene to the fruits and riches of the balafon. Leading the Hélélé ensemble is Cameroonian percussionist Alphonse Daudet Touna, who uses his self-made, 12 note fixed-key balafon to pioneer the Afrofunk disco band. Headlining major festivals and venues across the UK, including Shambala, Marlboroguh Jazz Festival and the South Bank Centre, the band was formed to ‘enrich and share Touna’s music with the world’, thus introducing the balafon to new and different audiences.

Listening In: “I Nyu Kii” by Hélélé

Where the balafon features in prominent roles in the other examples, in this track Touna’s percussion sits comfortably in the band. It brings an earthy, rhythmic timbre to the energetic Cameroonian Mokossa. In fact, the instrument doesn’t appear at all in the calming introduction section. Instead, the instrument is part of a salsa of juicy instruments that mix and infuse with each other to create uplifting feelings throughout. Its role is similar to traditional contexts, where the balafon accompanies stories and praises of songs sung. In this piece, the balafon sits with the rhythm section to elevate the jazzy saxophone solo and overall party atmosphere of the party track.

Listening In, Understanding More: the balafon.

By listening in to these three contrasting examples, we get a sense of the different ways musicians have been inspired by and use this wooden xylophone instrument. The different contexts the balafon can be found in make us more aware of the limitations of the instrument. Its restricted range that conflicts with other popular instruments. They also create awareness of the instrument’s theatrical potential on stage.

Let’s continue this discussion on the forum. What do you think about the way these musicians have presented the balafon in recorded material? To what extent is the use of the balafon in Western popular musics harmful or enriching to the instrument and its traditions? Also, let’s discuss other places we can hear the balafon. A personal favourite is Muse’s Dominic Howard using the instrument throughout their “Origin of Symmetry” album. Where else have you heard the balafon?