Listening In, Understanding More: The Bolon

Shrouded in mysticism, the once-great bolon instrument has now all but completely disappeared from contemporary West African music. Occasionally seen in ballet contexts, it’s hard to grasp the importance of the bolon in carrying messages about conflict, war and peace to various villages in Mali and Guinea. Nevertheless, the bolon is an intriguing instrument, with a particularly unique resonance and timbre. As in the previous article exploring the balafon, in this piece we’ll listen in to the bolon, learning about how it sounds and where we can find it today.

An enigmatic harp, shrouded in mysticism…

Before we jump into listening to this stringed calabash, let’s first explore what a bolon is and where it comes from. Although the instrument played an essential part in accompanying traditional stories of war and conflict, it is actually uncertain where it came from and when. Unlike other Mande instruments, the bolon is not associated with the griot or jeli tradition of hereditary musicians. Its origins can, therefore, not be traced back through any lineage. It is agreed however that the instrument probably dates from slightly before the Mandinka empire was founded.

Listening In the Bolon
Listening In the Bolon

The bolon is a stringed harp, made from the calabash gourd which is the basis for an assortment of West African instruments. The complete gourd forms the body of the instrument. It’s covered with a goat skin and fixed with a curved wooden neck, the alleged shape of a hunter’s bow. Attached to this neck are 3 or 4 strings, usually made of a twisted goatskin hide. At the top of this neck you find metal bells and hoops, which allow an iconic buzzing sounds to be produced as the instrument is played.

An enticing combination of gourd, skin, strings and bells

As mentioned, the bolon served as a significant tool to communicate the results of war and conflict throughout regions. The instrument was known to have a mystical power too, as it was used to rouse warrior’s valour before battle. In interview with ‘Instruments4Africa‘, Ibrahim Traoré explains that to study the instruments, one would have to be prepared to be cursed with spells, because of the power of the instrument.

Spotlight #1: Adama Koeta

Although better known as a kora player, Adama Koeta’s bolon demonstrations introduce us to the instrument remarkably well. Born into a griot family in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, Adama started as a balafonist until he was introduced to percussion, the n’goni, the kora and bolon by his uncle. Surrounded by music, in his family and education, Adama brings a wealth of percussion and stringed instrument knowledge, which he shows in this bolon performance on his YouTube channel

Listening In: “Adama Koeta au Bolon”

This short demonstration of the bolon is a wonderful example of how unique the instrument is with every part of the instrument contributing to its sound. Look how Adama hits the calabash between notes to help create a percussive accompaniment to the warm string melody. By adding percussion, he’s able to use accents and cross rhythms to bring momentum and drive in the piece.

Surprisingly, Adama’s bolon doesn’t have metal bells or rings on its neck. This is a rare sight, as the music of Mande culture leans heavily on the traditional African sound of buzzing and rattling. The bolon is no exception to this. Nevertheless, this clip is a great place to start when understanding what the bolon sounds like and the type of timbres it can produce.

Spotlight #2: Ibrahim Traoré

Since he is the self-proclaimed last surviving player of the Mandinka bolon in Mali, it’s imperative to mention Ibrahim Traoré. The Mandinka bolon is similar to other variations, except it only ever has three strings on its neck. Ibrahim Traoré is well known for his spine-tingling warrior songs that carry emotional weight and legacy in their lyrics. Let’s hear the musician in action to delve in the narrative of his bolon music.

Listening In: “The Bolon | Instrument of the Warrior Kings of Mandé interview, Ibrahim Traoré 

If you get the chance, watch the whole interview, but if you don’t have the time, at least watch the interview and performance from 1:35. After discussing the mysticism and magical powers the bolon has, Ibrahim Traoré performs a short piece lamenting on the toll of conflict. Ibrahim sings ‘When I think of the bolon I cry’, because of the death and suffering depicted in bolon songs.

In this interview, Ibrahim offers his opinion on why the bolon is almost musically extinct. “This is because the royal wars no longer exist, they are finished”, Ibrahim proclaims. Without the stories, the instrument is tragically dying in its traditional context.

Spotlight #3: Toumani Doumbia

Concluding our bolon adventure, Toumani Doumbia highlights the bolon’s role in carrying narrative as an accompanying instrument. The master bolon player from Baro, Guinea, continues to play the instrument to support message delivering songs in both rural and urban contexts. To listen to how he does so, and explore the worlds of timbre the instrument represents, let’s explore a 2012 recording of him and his son, videoed by ‘dleufer’

Listening In: “Toumani Doumbia – Bolon & Guitar (with Banjou Doumbia)”

In previous examples, we’ve seen the bolon alone or accompanying the voice. In this one  we see the bolon accompanying the guitar and voice. Interestingly, in this performance, the bolon plays more of a temporal percussive role, than the bassline-producing voice in previous examples. Performed by Toumani’s son, Banjou Doumbia, the bolon’s bells provide a distorted rhythmic framework for the melody to sit on top of. This is done to great effect, as the guitar and voice can gently sit on top of the warm percussion sound.

Perhaps this audible dynamic would be different if the bolon was amplified, however. Towards the end of the piece, we get to hear the notes that the bolon is performing, and interestingly, this sounds in temperament with the guitar. Usually, bolon are not ‘tuned’ in a temperament, but rather tuned to the performer’s taste. This move to ‘tune’ the bolon is interesting – perhaps it was to make the performance accessible to the recorder’s taste? Let’s continue our speculations in our forum here.

Listening In, Understanding More: the bolon.

By listening into these three bolon example, we get a sense of the different ways musicians use the whole body of the instrument in order to express their music. The bolon is a unique string instrument, where a lot of its sound doesn’t come from merely plucking its strings. By watching the examples, we are able to see the importance of the body of the instrument, and how musicians use this to accompany voice and other instruments in different settings.

As before, let’s continue this discussion on our forums. We’ve seen the bolon in these different rural contexts, but the instrument does exist in more urban contexts too. We also haven’t discussed the use of the bolon in the traditional ballet settings, how troupes like the famous Les Ballets Africains or the contemporary Ballet Nimba use the bolon in their performances. Seen any other noteworthy performances of the bolon? Let’s discuss.