The Mande bala is an instrument that dates back to the 12th century. It falls into the musical classification of idiophone because it vibrates when struck and is similar to (and sometimes confused with) xylophones and marimbas. It originated in West Africa, within the boundaries of the former Empire of Mali. They are constructed from local materials: “bamboo” for the frame, bound together by thongs; 11 to 20 “rosewood slabs” of varying lengths for different tones; mallets, “which are tipped in rubber (or latex) tapped from wild trees”; gourds with two small holes in their sides, covered by “a thin membrane made from spider web or tissue paper”. What makes balas unique is that when a wooden key is hit, the vibrations travel into the gourd and cause the membrane to make a buzzing sound; the gourds then amplify this sound. The bala is often referred to by the French name “balafon,” but this term comes from a combination of the Bambara words “balan” (the name of the instrument) and “fo” (which means to play). Thus, balafon means "to play the bala."
The Mande People and Culture
The Mande people are a large group of related ethnic groups in West Africa who speak any of the many Mande languages. Their languages are a branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Like most African peoples, the history of the Mande people has been preserved in oral traditions. The Mande word for the hereditary class of people who are in charge of keeping the history is jeliw or jeliu (the singular is jeli). In English, the term griot is used instead. Jeliw sing stories about historical events, important people, and other culturally significant topics. Music played on balas, drums, and other instruments accompanies the storytelling. For over 1000 years, they have “played a crucial role as historians in the kingdoms that developed from the 10th century to the 20th century across Africa”. The Mande people are the ones responsible for the creation of the Malian Empire that lasted from approximately 1230 to 1600. Mali absorbed the Empire of Ghana, but later was absorbed by the Empire of Songhay. At its height, it was one of the largest empires on Earth; second only to the Mongol Empire of Asia. One of Mali’s most well know rulers was Mansa Musa (also called Kankun Musa) whose pilgrimage to Mecca attracted so much attention that he was put on some maps drawn around that time. Mali was also very connected with other parts of Africa, their “traders dominated West Africa, ambassadors were sent to Egypt and Morocco, and Egyptian scholars were brought to the kingdom”.
The Epic of Sunjata
The story of the creation of the Malian Empire, which dates back to the early 1200s, explains where the first bala came from. Though accounts vary from one region of West Africa to another, and names change as they are transliterated into English, French, and other languages, certain parts of the story remain constant. For example, Sunjata Keita's (sometimes-spelled Sundiata Keita) jeli was the one who found the first bala in the palace of the king of Soso (or Susu). The bala was called the Soso Bala, and after Sunjata defeated the king of Soso, the Soso Bala was given to his jeli: “that bala has remained with his descendants, and is still guarded by them in a sacred shrine in the village of Niagassola in Guinea and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site”. Some versions of the story say that Sumaworo Kanté (also called Sumanguru), the king of Soso, had magical powers and got the bala from genies in a cave. Because Sumaworo was one of the last surviving members of the Empire of Ghana’s ruling class, his defeat sealed Ghana’s fate, while Sunjata became the first ruler of Mali.
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