After the discovery of iron and its uses 2,500 year ago, the social organisation
of African society changed. Many of the inhabitants, who had been nomads
since time out of mind, became sedentary. Castes formed, and among them
the blacksmith was found at the centre of all craft activities and became
powerful. Without him there would be no weapons for hunting, nor farming
implements, nor cooking utensils. He was master of fire and wood. Traditionally,
it was he who sculpted the shell of the djembe, or the slats of the balafon.
The balafola's gesture is the same as the blacksmith's. Beating
with the stick is the same movement as with the hammer and the slat replaces
the anvil. Everything seems to indicate that the first balafon players
According to one of the Mandingo cosomogonic myths, the first
inhabitant of the Earth coming down from the sky was a blacksmith. It is
certainly not by chance that the balafon played an important part in the
history of the accession of the kingdom of Mali in the 13th century.
The history of the balafon, sung and recounted by the Jelis for eight centuries,
is written in an epic that is comparable to India's Mahabharata, or the
song of the Nibelungen in Germany.
Here is a summary.
At the end of the 12th century, Nare Maghann Konate reigned over
the Mande country, a region that at the time covered today's south east
Mali and north Guinea.
This king had two sons, Soundiata Keita was born in 1190 in Niani
by his first wife and Dankaran Touman by his second wife. When the
king died, it was the second son, Dankaran Touman who, with his mother
behind him, took over power in place of his elder brother and legitimate
Soundiata went into exile with a few faithful followers and travelled
all over the country to forge alliances with clan chiefs.
Just before his death, Nare Maghann Konate had foreseen this situation.
He named Bala Faseke, the son of his own Jeli as counsellor to Soundiata.
He thought that with his political acumen, he would be able to help his
elder son to resume the power usurped by his half-brother.
In the south of the country was another kingdom, Sosso.
This realm was governed by a blacksmith king Soumaoro Kante with
an iron hand. This king, encouraged by desire for grandeur, annexed the
surrounding small kingdoms one after the other and coveted the Mande country
for its huge gold resources.
The young Mandingo king, Dankaran Touman, alarmed by the ambitions of
his neighbour, sent his Jeli, Bala Faseke to the court of the Sosso King
with instructions to try to mediate between the two kingdoms.
But Soumaoro Kante imprisoned him and thus violated the ancestral custom
of respecting the Jeli.
The legend is that it was Soumaoro Kante who met the Dondori imps
one day. They showed him an instrument he had never seen before: the balafon!
Soumaoro Kante wanted to remain the master of this fantastic instrument.
None but he had the right to touch it. If by chance, anyone else played
it, he was summarily executed. To emphasise this interdiction, he said,
"If a fly lands on it, it shall be found and killed."
One day, in defiance of this prohibition, Bala Faseke penetrated the
secret room where the balafon was kept and began to play it. Even though
he was out in the bush hunting, Soumaoro heard the sound of the balafon.
He returned home at once in a rage and was about to kill the Jeli, but
Bala Faseke spellbound Soumaoro by singing his praises. He played with
such virtuosity that the king was charmed by the music and appointed him
as his personal Jeli.
War between Soundiata Keita and Soumaoro Kante seemed inevitable.
After several inconclusive battles, 1235 saw the battle of Kirina.
In the morning, before hostilities commenced, Bala Faseke succeeded in
fleeing back to his original master, Soundiata Keita. Thanks to the regained
support of his Jeli, Soundiata won the war and became the first "Mansa",
king of Mali.
His reign was the start of a long period of prosperity for Mali, which
lasted from the 13th to the 16th century. That was the apogee of the balafon!
Each king or village chief would have his Jeli who could exercise his function
and develop his art without material care.
Following the defeat of Soumaoro Kante, Bala Faseke played the balafon
during the great ceremonies for a long time. Soundiata named him Bala Faseke
Kouyate. That was the foundation of a long line of Griots: the Kouyates,
who are still the guardians of this balafon known as the Sosso-Balafon
that can be found at Niagassolo, in the north of Guinea.
In 2004, UNESCO added the balafon to the world heritage list.
Here you will find a description of the construction
of an African balafon.