Djembe & Mande Music Page
(last revision 02/11/99)


This volume will deal with the tuning of balafons played by jelis or griots within Mande society. Among the Mande peoples, who live in the Western Sudan region of Africa, jelis are musicians/oral historians whose art and knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation within families such as the Kouyates, the Diabates, the Kontes, the Diawaras, etc. The balafon or bala "is found from Mali to Guinea including Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, the Republic of Guinea (Guinea Conakry), and Sierra Leone". (Lynne Jessup, Mandinka Balafon, p. 19). It is one of the oldest of the jeli instruments and oral accounts trace its origin at least as far back to the thirteenth century and the days of Sunjata, the first ruler of the Mali Empire. 

The Mande balafon is a resonated frame xylophone, which simply means that the keys are placed across a frame and a gourd resonator is attached below each key. An additional feature of the Mande balafon is that two small holes are generally pierced in the resonating gourds and they are covered with a thin spider's egg case or cigarette paper, thereby producing a buzzing mirliton effect, that embellishes the sound of the keys. If you have listened to recordings such as "Djelika" by Toumani Diabate, "Jaliology" by Dembo Konte, Kausu Kuyate and Mawdo Suso or "Mögöbalu" by Mamady Keita, you have heard a Mande balafon.

The first question relating to balafon tuning is what series of tones or scale do the keys of Mande balafons correspond to. On the basis of her study of Mandinka (the Mandinka are the western-most branch of the Mande family) balafons in The Gambia, (Mandinka Balafon, p. 38-48) Lynne Jessup concludes that Mandinka balafons "approximate" equidistant heptatonic tuning, i.e. seven equal intervals per octave. To give the reader an idea of what this entails, it useful to compare equidistant heptatonic tuning to Western major or minor scales, which also have seven tones but, as we will see, the intervals or distances between the tones are different. Using a numerical system that divides the musical octave into 1200 cents (100 cents per half tone times 12 chromatic steps in our scale), Jessup calculated that each interval in equidistant heptatonic tuning is 171.4 cents (seven steps times 171.4 cents equals 1200 cents, which makes an octave). 

Extrapolating from Jessup's calculations, we can compare the three scales: (Note: a half step in Western tuning reads out on a cents meter as 100 cents, and a whole step reads as 200 cents. We need to thank Gary Neyers, a friend of Tom's, who set up this table)

The important thing to note is that with the exception of the first tone and the octave, none of the other tones of Mande balafons correspond to the tones of Western major or minor scales. The second degree is flat by 28.6 cents, or about a quarter of a half step (an eighth tone). The third degree is flat (compared to a major scale) by 57.2 cents, so it is significantly flat (this may be the origin of the "blue note," or flatted third in African American blues and spiritual music) The seventh degree is flat by 71.6 cents, which is, again, significantly flat and corresponds to the African American flatted seventh tone in blues (mostly treated these days as a minor seventh).

The mathematical model also does not reveal that most balas use the same fifth and fourth interval that we do in the West.  The more significant pitch alterations to look out for have to do with the second, third, sixth, and seventh degrees. Conceptually, the equidistant heptatonic tuning would make an instrument that would allow the player to play any song in any key just by moving the tonic. This may not work out, however, in practice.

Jessup's "equidistant heptatonic" tuning is an ideal mathematical model that does not necessarily correspond to how actual balas are tuned. Balafon makers traditionally tune balafons by ear, sometimes with the aid of another balafon but without Western tuning forks or electronic tuners. They go by aesthetic sense and not by math. That aesthetic sense seems to vary with the age and region of origin of the instrument maker. Just as a composer of Western classical music might write a piece in a particular key in order to achieve a desired mood or effect, a bala player/maker will tune his bala in order to attain the precise sound that he is seeking.

Anthony King, a British Ethnomusicologist, conducted extensive research on the tunings used by kora players. While the kora can be tuned by the player and the bala cannot (it is tuned only once -- by the maker), King's findings on the kora may be instructive. King describes that there are significant differences in how players from the "coastal" regions tune compared to players from the older "inland" stock. The coastal group includes jeli families that originated in the Kabou District of Portuguese Guinea and those from the Casamance Province of Senegal. These families came to these regions as part of the Mali Empire's expansion to the West and South. The inland group are from up the Gambia River valley, into Guinea and Mali, or what Eric Charry calls, "Old Mande," the center of the old Mali Empire. So one might think of the Casamance and Kabou players (the "coastal" group) as representing a more recent migrant tradition, and the "inland" group representing the more ancient traditions of Old Mande. It also may be significant that the coastal peoples had more direct contact with Europeans and may have modified their tunings when playing for Western ears. The inland group play generally in an "older style," and reflect the "pure" traditions of Old Mande. They may also manifest greater contact with the Arab world through their tunings and stylistic approaches. One tuning variation King describes is that the coastal players tune the second and sixth degrees of the scale significantly sharper than the inland group do. This is important because when we hear a traditional Mande song being played, we might not immediately recognize it due to the sound of the different tuning.

A separate question is how do balafon makers achieve the desired pitch? This brings up how to choose a pitch center for the instrument and how to physically alter the keys to match the pitches you desire.  Anthony King wrote the following explanation of the wide variety of pitch centers different players use:
 "...the final pitch of a kora is usually related to its performer's vocal range. It is thus not surprising than no absolute pitch standard appears to be used in tuning. But, as would be expected from the matching of the instrument's pitch to the human voice, most kora are in fact tuned within reasonable pitch limits of each other. A notable exception to this is in the practice of some musicians who purposely tune their instruments to the upper limits of their vocal range because of popular esteem for a high singing voice combined with an equally high-pitched accompaniment. This is particularly common among young musicians who thereby hope to shortcut the long process of establishing a professional reputation." (Anthony King, "The Construction and Tuning of the Kora," p.124)  In other words, if you are building a bala for your own use, you should tune it to your vocal range (maybe the high end of it!). The bala traditionally plays accompaniment to singing and praising.

Lynne Jessup explains in detail how to build a bala. In brief, you build a tapered frame first. It should be wider at one end than the other. Then you cut key blanks to rest on the frame so that each key will be supported from its nodal point. "Nodes are acoustic points where the vibrations forming the pitch are of minimal amplitude. Therefore constricting the pitch at this point does not affect the sound." (Jessup, Mandinka Balafon, p. 35) The nodal points are 22.5% of the total length of the key in from each end. (Reinhold Banek and Jon Scoville, Sound Design (Ten Speed Press, 1995), p. 39.) After the rough cut, it is necessary to fine tune the keys to the desired pitches. The fine tuning of the keys is accomplished by thinning the center (underside) to lower the key's pitch and by thinning the ends (underside) to raise the pitch. To tune the keys of your bala, Jessup recommends using "a tuner or pitch indicator with a cents readout" (Mandinka Balafon, p. 173)Since Jessup concluded that the lowest tone most commonly found in Mandinka balafons was roughly equivalent to C sharp (one half-step above Middle C on a piano), she suggests tuning the lowest key to C sharp and the other keys as follows: 

"To match the pitches of a Mandinka balafon:
 pitch 1 - tune to C sharp
 pitch 2 - tune to D sharp minus 30 cents
 pitch 3 - tune to E plus 42 cents
 pitch 4 - tune to F sharp plus 13 cents
 pitch 5 - tune to G sharp minus 15 cents
 pitch 6 - tune to A sharp minus 44 cents
 pitch 7 - tune to B plus 38 cents
 tune the remainder in octaves." (Jessup 173)

She also gives directions for tuning the lowest note to C:

"To begin on C:
 pitch 1 - tune to C
 pitch 2 - tune to D minus 30 cents
 pitch 3 - tune to E flat plus 42 cents, or E minus 58 cents 
 pitch 4 - tune to F plus 14 cents
 pitch 5 - tune to G minus 15 cents
 pitch 6 - tune to A minus 44 cents
 pitch 7 - tune to A sharp plus 27 cents
 tune the remainder in octaves"

  In conclusion, it should be noted that xylophone-family instruments are common throughout Africa, but the Mande balafon is unusual in that it uses a heptatonic (as opposed to the more universal pentatonic) tuning. If you are considering purchasing an instrument for playing the Mande jeli repertoire, make sure that the instrument is tuned to a seven note (heptatonic) scale. If there are fine tuning problems with the keys, it is possible to make a passable instrument quite decent. But it would be much harder to try to tune a pentatonic instrument to fit a heptatonic repertoire. 

As for possible sources for quality Mande balafons, we can recommend Karamba Dambakate (San Francisco), Lansana Kouyate (Los Angeles); Abu Sylla (New York City); all three are master balafon players. You should, however, expect to pay $500-600 in the US for a professional quality balafon. Some tips for purchasing a balafon are: Examine both the top and underside of the keys to make sure that there are no cracks in the keys. You should also examine the gourds to make sure that they are intact. The keys of quality balafons generally have a consistently concave surface but you should also make sure that the tone and volume of the keys are consistent and that they are no dead sounding keys. One final bit of advice is to try to get mallets with natural rubber tips, which can run $40-50 in the US. Although mallets with tips covered with strips of tire inner tube are more widely available and are adequate, mallets with natural rubber tips have better weight distribution and have a better feel and more consistent sound.


Lynne Jessup The Mandinka Balafon, Xylo Publications, P.O. Box 1740 - 138, La Mesa, CA 92041
A complete guide to Mande balafon: it includes cultural background material on the bala, and the jeli tradition instructions for building a balafon, a discography and notations of and background information for 18 pieces from the Mandinka jeli repertoire. The books contains 191 pages and comes with one cassette that presents the basic accompaniment parts to the songs noted in the book and a second cassette of performances of Gambian bala masters.

El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté "Guinée: Anthologie du balafon mandingue [Guinea: Anthology of Mandingo Balafon]": (3 volumes sold separately)  Musique du Monde; Volume 1: 92520-2; Volume 2: 92534-2; Volume 3: 92535-2   REVIEW
These three CDs are essential listening for bala students or for anyone interested in the jeli bala tradition. They feature the virtuoso playing of El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté, who is arguably the finest living balafon player. He  is accompanied by skilled musicians on second balafon,  bolon (a large, four-stringed lute), sokko (a four- stringed violin),  buru (a lateral flute) and  tunni (a flute with two tubes and a gourd resonator). The songs tend to be long and are excellent vehicles for  Djeli Sory Kouyaté's inspired improvisation

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