The Bala to Marimba: Case Study in the Transformation of a Mande Instrument

The somewhat unique use of buzzing to complete the range of a tonal instrument has made the adaptation of African instruments into other cultures especially transformative. This change is more dramatic when applied to the exchange between West African culture and countries with strong European musical influences, where tonal concerns often outweigh a larger view of sound itself. I will explore a particular case of these transformations in the bala, on its journey from West Africa, through Guatemala and into the United States. The traditional Mande construction of the bala uses thin vibrating mirlitons stretched over the resonators to create a buzzing noise when each key is struck. These objects can be membrane, spider egg webs or cigarette paper and plastic more recently. This piece gives a distinct hiss parallel to the melodies of the instrument, and allows for a fairly steady rattling hum below notes, which is accented by the player hitting the instrument harder.

This sound is easily identifiable in traditional playing:

As early as 1550, these instrumental ideas and aesthetics were brought, due to the slave trade, from West Africa to Central America, becoming the marimba in name and yet having similar construction. The use of gourds, rattling membranes and wider bars made this variation what it has become as part of traditional Central American culture, especially in Belize and Guatemala.

Exploring the origins of the Marimba:

A traditional Guatemalan ensemble:

The buzzing sound came to be known as charleo in Guatemala. “The marimba was originally played at the community ceremonies and celebrations of the indigenous people of Guatemala. During that time, the marimba was associated with lewdness and drunkenness because of its association with the Mayan people and their “pagan” rituals. However, Catholic evangelists eventually incorporated the marimba into their ceremonies to lend credence to their religion. In 1894, Guatemalan Sebastian Hurtado invented the chromatic marimba, which contained two rows of keys instead of one.”- Karin Norgard,

Along with adapting the tuning possibilities, Hurtado’s invention also replaced the gourds with wooden pipes, which emphasized the first partial and increased the tonal, rather than percussive elements of the instrument. Percussionist Daniella Squyres brings up Guatemalan ensembles touring the U.S. in the 1920’s that were having success. This led instrument maker J.C. Deagan to create a tuned marimba with metal resonators that also had the buzzing rattles built in. This instrument, the Nabimba, was not a success. Though the marimba has been incorporated in a great deal of modern Western art and dance musics, almost every western manufacturer uses precise machine produced chromatic tonalities, metal resonators, and seeks a clean frequency response.

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