Balafon history, context, and traditional performances

Hi all,

Below is some general balafon history that I send to my students. Hopefully, this provides some traditional context to several West African countries where it is played. I’ll let the info speak for itself and keep checking in on member conversations.

Important reminder: The video lessons I am uploading do not represent a traditional context or style I learned in Burkina Faso. I am using my own 4-mallet approach to connect rhythm ideas and grooves that can be played on any mallet instrument.

Balafon history:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balafon

https://dance1400.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/the-history-of-the-balafon-an...

https://www.gambia.co.uk/blog/the-story-of-the-balafon-an-ancient-west-a...

http://www.african-music-safari.com/african-balafon-history.html

Performance videos:
#1
This instrument is similar to mine, except much better in tune! I also need to have my frame rebuilt. Notice how he holds the single mallet between his index and middle finger, which gives the player more energy and attack, kind of Burton-esque, minus the second mallet in each hand. The pattern is in a 2-feel and is lots of fun to hear and enjoy his happy mood!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXXhp_bZvck

#2:
Interesting duet also in a 2-feel. Notice the guy on our left playing it backward with the low register on his right. It could be because he may be left-handed. It could also be that sometimes they play a duet on one instrument, with the second player facing the first which would create a flipped orientation. Love how they sing as they play! Such freedom and fun!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z97mqEil3Ww

#3:
Duet with djembe – oh yes, this is how melody and groove intertwine. These cats are the real deal.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5z9HqhVtPPI

#4
Another Burkina Faso balafon, similar to mine, but much more stable and tuned! Need to have mine rebuilt and re-tuned. Singing while you play is very common and an essential part of the training and repertoire.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgB9dHo7CCo

#5:
Also from Burkina Faso, in the city of Bobo Dioulasso where I studied. Another wonderful duet. These would make for wonderful duets on Marimba, yes??? Care to transcribe?? : )
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0InAvHxp7cw

#6:
Short and sweet — these two women are going to town – ouch!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVRX4L4ObWU

#7:
Smaller instruments – a more portable design. 3 octaves with the top note reaching the octave (kinda rare in my observations)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Agl7pLwf4Q8

jerry remind me. i'll go through and add all the youtube vids to this.

this is great!

done

i felt good because i have a few of these on my youtube watch list. i've seen them.

i think there is a lot for us to learn from balifon players. their independence is really something else. imagine putting that to a tune.

Honestly when i watch and listen to some of the gary burton CDs i think sometimes i'm watching a good balifon players. i think if you're going to play like burton you need to get your independence together in a big way.

how i do i phrase this melody with this bass line using the 4 mallets and it not sounding stiff.

it's funny because i have talked to two mallet players about 4 mallets players. they same a similar thing when they generalize. 4 mallet players don't swing. why? because we are trying to play 2 lines at the same time, two things at the same time and we need to master the phrasing part of that, not just the technical challenge of coordinating the sticks.

listen closely to gary play chega. i don't think it was easy for him, as there is so much going on. no one has done it in my opinion at this level since he did. but i always think someone is out their getting this together. sometimes i think it's that young guy vid jamnik. we'll see, there are great 4 mallet players out there.

i think there's a lot of the puzzle of all this that is solved by the balifon and people playing it for a few thousand years (is that accurate? a few thousand years?). remember we've only been playing the vibraphone for almost 100 years. it's anniversary is coming up.

...that's a mouthful.

Watching some of the videos Jerry shared - the ease with which the balifon players demonstrated smooth, smoking/rocking poly rhythms and independence...something to strive for. And practice...

Burton surely took that to a higher level for the vibraphone and the music played on it...no question.

why in video 2 are the instruments backwards? you can play either way? can all balifon players play either way? is it kind of however you learn?

My theory on this is that left-handed folks play the balafon backward. You see, the melody is usually played in the lower register with the upper register for accompaniment patterns that often repeat, like a bell pattern. Because of the strong-hand needing to play the melody, they may have learned it entirely backward from birth and are quite comfortable, like learning to play drum set left handed. It is fascinating to watch and when you think about it does make sense from the strong-hand POV.

Here is a quote from an article on this: "When Solo was 18, he heard Alpha Blondy’s reggae recording Jerusalem, admired the bass line, and conceived a desire to tamper with his traditional 17-slat balafon by adding three bass slats and altering the tuning. His balafonist father was not at all sure about the propriety of this, but gave permission for the experiment on condition that if he did not like the result, Solo would desist from innovation. The son wrought his changes and, moreover, built a balafon that he played exactly backwards, soloing with his left hand on the lower notes and playing the accompaniment with his right hand, “adding,” says Monson, “some very complicated and interesting bass lines to the texture of the music.”
His father approved. At his lecture-demonstration, Solo deconstructed, first playing a line of music with his right hand, then adding a different line with his left hand, then bursting into song with a third line. “Not many balafonists sing while they play,” says Monson, “but he wanted to do something different.” (To hear Neba Solo perform, go to www.harvardmagazine.com.)

Also, an article on adapting Balafon lines to Marimba::
"Inventing New Marimba Performance from the African Balafon Music"
http://www.docartes.be/uploads/assets/1044/1550136727-adilia-yip-dissert...

Thanks so much Jerry. And Tony, for helping to put this together.

Every one of these vids is uniquely incredible! I dug every one! I'm excited to learn more - my head is spinning. Being exposed to this has been amazing. Just awesome learning!

Truth: I've spent the majority of the last couple dozen years learning more about the East African nations who are or have been traditionally known as great distance runners. Let's now go west young man! (OK, not so young). :)

I'm going to spend a few minutes each day here for a while digging into this. Thank you!

That's great to hear, Al! There is so much we can gain from the instrument and tradition. I'm putting together a deep collection of balafon lesson vids inspired by W. African and Indian concepts. I also need to post more of my music that uses the balafon to hear the possibilities. There are no limitations, only possibilities : )
So yes, let's "run" with it all and see where it takes us..........

Here is a real master at work, playing the balafon backward with some lovely lines, independence, and singing as he plays. He barely looks at the bars as he sings with such a joyous mood. Clearly, his right-hand in the low register plays bass line accompaniment as his left-hand plays the upper register melody with improvisation. Strong hand playing the melody IS the priority, which is why the instrument appears backward to our POV.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6umJsmhktI

...crazy! So good. So good!