Also:       bala      balafo      balafeu      balafou      

Title: Jaliology—Lambango; Mawdo Suso, balo. Label: Xenophile. Format: CD. Catalogue#: XENO 4036. Track: 9.

Contextual Associations

The balo is a gourd-resonated xylophone idiophone of the Mandinka people of Gambia. It is typical of the frame xylophones used by Mande-speaking peoples of western Africa. The balo is intimately associated with hereditary music specialists called jeli and their practices (called jeliya; see ensemble entry ‘Jeliya Instruments of Mandinka Hereditary Musicians from The Gambia’ for more context). Many of the processes involved in the creation of a balo (such as carving wood with metal tools) are similar to work done by numo, or blacksmiths (another Mande hereditary caste), who in turn are associated with the making and playing of drums such as the Mande jembe. This close association with numo and drums has led to the occasional use of balo with non-jeliya jembe drum ensembles in parts of the Mande cultural region. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the balo came also to be incorporated into some forms of urban popular music in West African countries such as Mali and Guinea, albeit still played by jeli.


The frame of this balo is made of two similarly-sized, trapezoidal-shaped frames each made from two long slats of bamboo (for the sides) and two short slats of wood (for the ends) positioned one on top of the other and separated by posts at their four corners that are thicker in their midsection (between the frames) than at their ends. The joints/intersections of the frames and posts are reinforced with rawhide lacing. Running from side-to-side of the upper frame are nineteen thin sticks of slit bamboo secured to the slats with rawhide laces. Running from post to post along the length of the instrument and above the above-mentioned cross sticks is a thin rope made from twisted strands of rawhide. These ropes serve to cushion the keys from coming into direct contact with the bamboo frame. The twenty keys are made of thoroughly dried rosewood. They tapper in length from right to left, but start out with roughly the same thickness. Tuning is accomplished by removing wood from the bottom side of the keys; a greater amount of wood is removed from the middle for the lower-pitched keys and from both ends for the higher-pitched ones. The keys are attached to and suspended over the frame with two lengths of nylon cord. Each of the cords is tied to one end post of the frame, and then looped around each key in succession before being securely tied to the post at the other end of the frame. These loops contact the keys at points approximately one-quarter of the length of the key from its ends, which are dead spots or nodes in the vibrational cycle of rectangular keys. Beneath each key and suspended with nylon cord from the cross-sticks mentioned above is an open vessel resonator (see detail photo; the top two resonators are missing from this instrument). Each of these gourd resonators has a volume attuned to the frequency of the key above it. The beaters used to strike the keys are made from short segments of a tree branch tipped with a thick ball of natural rubber.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A balo player sits cross-legged on the ground facing a side (either one) of the instrument holding one beater in each hand. He strikes the middle of the keys with a consistently strong force to produce either two-part contrapuntal ostinatos (kumbengo) or florid melodic passages (birimintingo). More than one balo can take part in a performance, in which case one player would provide the ostinato part while the other focuses on more melodic passages. The instrument is tuned to an equi-heptatonic scale (seven tones with approximately the same interval between scale degrees) and covers a range of nearly three octaves from approximately A-sharp3 to F6.


There is evidence of wooden slats placed over holes to create xylophones in ancient times. The development of the frame balo is traced back, in the oral history of the jeliya, to a blacksmith sorcerer-king of the 13th century CE. What is believed to be his very balo is guarded by a lineage of jeli living in the village of Niagassola in present day Guinea. It has fewer keys and is somewhat larger in its proportions than the balo pictured here. It was only in the late-19th or early-20th century that Mande xylophones took on their present day proportions and number of keys. 

Bibliographic Citations

Charry, 2000. Mande Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gourley, K. A., and Lucy Duran. 1984. “Balo [bala, balafo, balafou, balafon].” NGDMI v.1: 117.

Knight, Roderic. 1973. Mandinka Jeliya: Professional Music of the Gambia. Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.

________. 1984. “Music of Africa: The Manding Contexts.” In Performance Practice: Ethnomusicological Perspectives. ed. Gerard Behague. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, pp. 53-90.

________. 1991. “Music Out of Africa: Mande Jaliya in Paris.” world of music 33/1: 52-69.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: West Africa

Nation: Gambia

Formation: Mandinka

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.212 idiophone--set of percussion sticks: several percussion sticks of different pitch are combined to form a single instrument, struck with a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker)

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: block - oblong bar

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: separate resonating space/s attuned to pitch/es of sonorous object/s - built into instrument

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - stick with padded ball end

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: none


42.5 in. length

Primary Materials

cord - synthetic

Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter