When I was very young, I lived in Bobo, a town that came to life every evening with traditional groups. We lived close to a club where our friends, talented musicians, would play frequently. They played the musical instrument, the balan, mistakenly called the balafon.

I have chosen this particular instrument because of its trapezoidal shape and its melodious and stirring sound. I could listen to it for hours, together with my brothers.

The balafon is an African musical instrument made of bars of wood that produce notes when they are struck. The bars are arranged parallel to one another on a trapezoid frame under which gourds of various sizes are placed to create a sound amplification system (sound boxes). The French word "balafon" is actually incorrect because it refers to the activity of playing the instrument rather than the instrument itself. The word balafon comes from the Bambara language.

"Balan" refers to the instrument and "fô" means to play; balafon thus means "playing the balafon". The balafon has three parts: the wood bars that produce the notes, the trapezoid frame on which the bars are m Read More

When I was very young, I lived in Bobo, a town that came to life every evening with traditional groups. We lived close to a club where our friends, talented musicians, would play frequently. They played the musical instrument, the balan, mistakenly called the balafon.

I have chosen this particular instrument because of its trapezoidal shape and its melodious and stirring sound. I could listen to it for hours, together with my brothers.

The balafon is an African musical instrument made of bars of wood that produce notes when they are struck. The bars are arranged parallel to one another on a trapezoid frame under which gourds of various sizes are placed to create a sound amplification system (sound boxes). The French word "balafon" is actually incorrect because it refers to the activity of playing the instrument rather than the instrument itself. The word balafon comes from the Bambara language.

"Balan" refers to the instrument and "fô" means to play; balafon thus means "playing the balafon". The balafon has three parts: the wood bars that produce the notes, the trapezoid frame on which the bars are mounted and the gourds that provide the sound system. The bars are attached side by side on the frame. They cannot touch one another or the sound produced when the bars are struck would be different. This means that the space between the bars can neither be too wide nor too narrow. The bars are made from a very hard wood called "gouene-yori" in Bambara, "noinca" in Moré, "koyehoun" in Bwaba and "kpene" in the Samo language of Samogohiri (Orodara). The lacing that holds the bars together is made of deer (the toughest) or goat skin. You do not usually find two bars of the same length in either the pentatonic or heptatonic balafon. That would upset the balance of the trapezoidal shape. It is rare to find balafons with more than 21 notes but it is possible.


© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Balafons are found only on the African continent where they developed without outside influence.

The balafon is an idiophone. It is very much like its ancestor, the xylophone, but under its wooden planks, small gourds are used as resonators, giving it a very soft sound. It has a wood and rope frame and is played like a xylophone, with two rubber-tipped sticks.

The balafon is an ancient fetish instrument that was mainly used by African warriors. Today, however, the balafon is not linked to a religion as such but is mainly used for entertainment (dances) or for ceremonies. Balafons are usually played during celebrations by professionals rarely by amateurs.
Balafons are found only on the African continent where they developed without outside influence.

The balafon is an idiophone. It is very much like its ancestor, the xylophone, but under its wooden planks, small gourds are used as resonators, giving it a very soft sound. It has a wood and rope frame and is played like a xylophone, with two rubber-tipped sticks.

The balafon is an ancient fetish instrument that was mainly used by African warriors. Today, however, the balafon is not linked to a religion as such but is mainly used for entertainment (dances) or for ceremonies. Balafons are usually played during celebrations by professionals rarely by amateurs.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Balafon1

Kotoura, Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso Cultural Heritage Branch

wood, gourd, leather
© Burkina Faso Cultural Heritage Branch


Balafon2

Balafon or Balan (xylophone)

Kotoura, Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso Cultural Heritage Branch

wood, gourd, leather
© Burkina Faso Cultural Heritage Branch


This balan comes from Kotoura, a village in Kenedougou province. It is played during popular events such as funerals, agricultural festivals, marriages, by a "griot" or troubadour.

The instrument varies depending on the people who make it. You can find Senufo, Bwa and Dagara balafons in Burkina Faso.

As a result of industrialization, some synthetic products are now used to hold the bars together to increase the tone quality of the vibrations from the gourds that make up the sound box or resonator. The balan is increasingly played by young people as well as older folk in traditional or modern groups.


This balan comes from Kotoura, a village in Kenedougou province. It is played during popular events such as funerals, agricultural festivals, marriages, by a "griot" or troubadour.

The instrument varies depending on the people who make it. You can find Senufo, Bwa and Dagara balafons in Burkina Faso.

As a result of industrialization, some synthetic products are now used to hold the bars together to increase the tone quality of the vibrations from the gourds that make up the sound box or resonator. The balan is increasingly played by young people as well as older folk in traditional or modern groups.


© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Balafon: Audio

Balafon: Audio

Canadian Heritage Information Network
Canadian Heritage Information Network, Centre des recherches et études andalouses, Centre des musiques arabes et méditerranéennes Ennejma Ezzahra, Musée de la musique, Laboratoire de recherche des musiques du monde, Musée acadien de l'Université de Moncton, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Musée d'art et d'archéologie de l'Université d'Antananarivo, Musée ethnographique Alexandre Sènou Adande, Musée national du Mali, St. Boniface Museum, Lycée de langues étrangères Alexandre Dumas, Museum of the Romanian Peasant

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Understand that music is an expression in all cultures
  • Understand that the relationship between personal feelings and music transcends borders and cultures
  • Develop respect for music from a variety of cultural contexts
  • Examine traditional music practices in selected Francophone countries
  • Demonstrate geographical awareness by identifying Francophone countries
  • Be aware of the musical contributions of various cultural groups in their own community
  • Understand that all world music can be organized within a standard classification system

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