Considered by many the precursor of the contemporary xylophone, this Equi-Heptatonic Bala "BalaFon" has 20 or 21 keys (professional version).
Originally created by the Blacksmith, it ended up also being played by Jelis.
It consists of a low flat frame on which several strips of Bala wood of decreasing length are placed parallel to each other.
The underneath shape of each strip will define its main sound.
Each strip has its own resonators made of calabash bowls of corresponding sizes attached to its base. Two holes covered with thin egg membrane on the calabash bowls, gives its buzzing sound effect . Two mallets with natural rubber tips, are used to strike the keys.
This instrument was inspired and created with materials and behaviors used in the Blacksmith daily life in the Mandingue at the time of its creation. Blacksmiths work on metal and wood, and build all iron tools to carve wood or for farming..etc – The Bala wooden keys need metal tools to be carved and an oven to dry them. The action of playing the Bala also emulate the striking of hot metal.etc..
The oldest Bala (The Sosso-Bala) was crafted by Soumaworo Kante over 800 years ago.
He kept his instrument jealousy guarded and allowed no one to touch it but himself.
During the time of battle with the Malinke Kingdom, a griot named Diakouma Doua, who was jailed at Soumaworo's court, defied the forbidden warnings and played the Sosso-Bala.
Though he was enraged by his audacity, Soumaworo was impressed by the griot's talent, and authorized him (Diakouma Doua) to play the sosso-Bala.
He named him "Bala Fasseke Kwate" (the bala player: BalaFon), and this is how "Bala Fasseke"'s family (and their descendant the "Kouyate") became the guardian of Soumaworo Kante's Bala.
This very first Bala is presently kept virtually intact in the village of Niagassola in the north-east region of Guinea (by the Mali border), and has been declared world heritage by UNESCO.
It is kept and only played by the most senior member of the Kouyate family. Nowadays, the Sosso-Bala is only played once a year.
Older Balas used to be a lot wider and bulkier than nowadays. Other versions of this same instrument, with a more pronounced curved frame, are also found in other countries of West Africa with various different tuning like pentatonic.
It is now usually played by a Jeli, to accompany women singing or percussion rhythms.
This flat Heptatonic chassis version originates from Guinea.