My training balafon

Resonating calabashes / Thinking music

I had to pause all other blog posts to announce the most exciting news to you: I started taking balafon lessons.

Taking a deep breath after all that excitement and looking around, I imagine the confused faces of my readers. Sorry, what? You ask. So, the balafon is basically one version of the original xylophone. The original West African idea (there were similar instruments in Asia, South America, Southern Africa and Eastern Europe) that reached the West, and was fused with all of these other similar instruments from other cultures and then finding its place in the western orchestra. It comes from Mali, and was carried to the Gambian coast by the Mandinka people when they migrated here to build their 14th century kingdoms. The first documented mention of the balafon was a couple of centuries earlier.

My teacher, Y, is from a family of griots. According to my very simplistic understanding from the reading that I’ve done so far, this is a caste of professional musicians, although nobody really follows the caste system all that much anymore. There are many traditional instruments that a West African griot could play, ranging from the kora, a 21-stringed instrument, to various types of drums. Here are photos of a few of a kora and a batoo bolong, another stringed instrument. Y’s family are balafon specialists though. Every family member has been taught to play, respect and care for the instrument. And play they did. The entire extended family lived within the walled compound, which meant that at least a dozen young children walked past. Music drifted out of most of the rooms. During my lesson, there were several shouts of, “Hey be quiet! The student needs to concentrate!”

To say that Y loves the balafon would be the understatement of the century. Speaking to him about lesson logistics, he had the normal facial expressions of any other African guy having a normal chat. But when he started to speak about the instrument, his smile was impossible to contain. Light just flooded his face as if a switch had been turned on. He told me how they make the balafons themselves, he and his family. There were the training balafons, like the one assigned to me for the lesson, in the first photo below. It is made of a cheaper hardwood, but it still takes a considerable time to craft. Then there was Y’s beloved special performance balafon, made from rosewood that he went to Senegal to select. Back in his compound, the wood was cut up and treated over a low flame in a special oven. The keys were then tuned, and placed out in the sun to dry, before being tuned again. You’ll notice in the second photo below that under the keys of the performance balafon, there are resonating chambers made of calabashes. Each key has its own calabash, which also needs to be tuned. This is done in the middle of the night, when there is silence, so that the resonance of each calabash can be heard clearly. The mallets are also made of different kinds of wood. My training mallets were made from rosewood, which is heavier, but easier to control and more forgiving of the jerky touch of a beginner. Y’s mallets were made from a lighter wood, whose name I couldn’t catch. They are easier on the wrists during long performances, can fly across the keys much faster, but also require a deft touch.

You might have noticed in these pictures that Y’s performance balafon is turned the other way around, with the lower keys on the right instead of the left. This was on purpose. Y appreciated my persistence in tracking him down (the Gambia is not known for having searchable, up-to-date online information, and even Google Maps of my local area has mistakes in how the streets are drawn. I eventually made contact with Y through reaching the mother of his ex-wife on social media). I navigated 3 bush taxis to get to his place in Sukuta for the lesson. From this, he knew that I valued music highly in my life. He told me though, that if somebody wanted to become a professional balafon player and came to him for apprenticeship, the traditional ceremony would be to sacrifice a goat and to smear the blood of the goat on the balafon. Then the student would place their hands on the balafon, spread out in the goat blood, and pray that whatever they have come to learn will be given to them. Y told me that given that I was not wanting to take this up as a profession, I would be spared this gory ritual. I was very relieved. As much as I love music, I couldn’t kill an animal for it. But still, Y needed to see whether I was a worthy student, which is where the turned-around balafon comes in, so that I couldn’t copy his movements as easily. He pointed to the lowest key of my balafon, told me that it was tuned to a G, and therefore I could work the rest out myself. Then he proceeded to play a two-handed pattern with chords on his instrument, and commanded me to play the same.

I passed. Fortunately my musicianship was good enough. We moved straight to a tune traditionally associated with the Mandinka King of Kaabu himself. Y tells me that it was played during victory celebrations after battles. This tune can go on forever (when Y and I finally “performed” it for my phone recording, it went for more than 3 minutes), and it was to accompany the King as he deliberated about what to do with the prisoners-of-war. When the king was ready and stopped the music, he could either hold up a red arrow, indicating that the prisoners would be sacrificed, or a white arrow, indicating that they would be set free. It’s like the original game show thinking music. Except for the prisoners-of-war, it must be the soundtrack to the most anxiety-filled minutes of their lives.

Y was slightly surprised that I had asked him for these underlying cultural details of the music that we were playing. I guess I always feel slightly nervous and unsure about the issue of cultural appropriation when I learn new skills like these. Is there a set of rules about the “right” way to learn another culture’s musical instrument? I mean, in this case, I am putting in genuine effort, listening to my phone recordings over and over again (since balafon music is not written down, I have to remember it simply by listening) and waving imaginary mallets around in the air to practice. At the end of it, Y did also say that he thought I had developed a good feel for the instrument … so I don’t know. Feel free to yell at me if you think that I am doing something wrong.

Anyway, I also realise that not all of you love music like I do, and are probably yawning by this point. Let me see what else I can tell you about quickly. Oh yes, it’s baobab fruit season! You can see the hanging fruit ripening on the local trees. This means fresh baobab juice, which tastes quite nice, but could be better if the locals didn’t have the tendency to add so much sugar to it. At the Butcher’s Shop, which is actually the name of my trendy local cafe (yes they have those in the Gambia), they do baobab juice, bissap (hibiscus) juice (also called wonjo), and pink mix. Anyone who has worked at a hospital in Australia knows about pink mix. It’s a mixture of a pink liquid medication and a white liquid medication that relieves the symptoms of gastritis and heartburn. Here in the Gambia, though, it is just a mixture of baobab and bissap juices. Again, it tastes like too much sugar.

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