There was a hushed energy in the atrium of Pearlman. No one was quite sure what to expect, or when the event would begin. Suddenly there was a flurry of movement—the doors to Pearlman Lounge opened as the musicians entered. Mamadou Diabaté, Seydou Diabaté and Dramane Dembélé crossed the threshold with big smiles all around, embracing their enormous instruments—which we would think of as a xylophone, but what is referred to in West Africa as the balafon.
We filed into the small circular room, an intimate group of around 20 people on Friday, Oct. 14. With a smile and brief introduction, Prof. Laura McPherson of Dartmouth swept into the center and asked for a moment of silence so that one of the musicians could call the appropriate spirit to be present for their playing. The room grew still and silent.
Light glinted off the scrolling golden thread of Mamadou’s robe as he gently bent his head, leaned forward and began to play a short, sharp scatter of notes. Though it lasted only a few seconds, the beauty of the instrument was already realized. A deep buzzing accompanies the rich, pure tones. This is what differentiates the balafon from a xylophone—a balafon is larger, curved and has hollowed out gourds underneath with a few holes pierced in them. These holes are then covered with a thin cigar paper. This creates a resonating sound.
After the spirits were called, McPherson provided some details about the culture and instrument. She explained that the Sambla are “a small West African ethnic group” living in Burkina Faso. The Sambla Chiefs grant protection to those from the Tusia, a nearby ethnic group, in exchange for musicians. The Balafon is “passed from father to son.” They are played at weddings, funerals and festivals.
Perhaps the most unique ability of the balafon is to “speak” the language of Seenku, in the form of a surrogate language, which McPherson defined as “a system of communication that directly represents a spoken language in a non-speech modality.” Thus, the soloist playing the balafon can communicate lyrics, praises, genealogies and even banter with the audience—all without speaking a word.
We then were privileged to see the communication of the balafon in action. McPherson called Mamadou’s brother on Skype, and he listened to the cascading notes on the balafon and spoke back. The pace began to ramp upward—the brother spoke rapidly in French over Skype as the balafon and he began their exchange. Mamadou’s notes became jovial, seeming to poke fun at his brother. Dembélé laughed, a grin splitting his serious face as he comprehended the encoded message.
Afterward, McPherson translated. She explained that they were indeed teasing the brother. First, Mamadou and Seydou played music that said a variety of greetings, and then asked where the brother was. He responded that he was in the village. The jest was made when the balafon said, “I would like a beer.” The brother laughed, saying, “How am I supposed to do that? You’re in America!”
At last, it was time for a performance. Mamadou and Seydou each sat at a balafon, while Dembélé held a Fula flute to his lips. Quite suddenly, they began to play. And the sound that came forth was utterly miraculous.
The balafons started, quietly at first, the notes inducing tingles on my spine. Suddenly they began to crescendo. Dembélé joined with his flute, adding in vocals that mimicked the same pitches as the flute itself. The sound was raw, freeing—a jubilee of expression. They began to play louder and louder, the small room becoming engulfed in rich sound. Mamadou began to sing, his voice husky yet soft like butter. The buzzing resonance underneath the clear pitches washed over us. It seemed to me that the musicians and instruments were radiating an energy and light.
Every person in the room was immersed in the music. People smiled, swayed and tapped their feet, present in the moment. As I listened, I felt the urge to just run somewhere in an open field or dance.
Then it was over. I clapped so hard that my hands began to ache, and all of us showered the three musicians with enthusiasm. They treated us to three more songs, and even chose two students to play the balafons with them. By the last piece, all of us were clapping to the beat.