Search the Anthropology Review Database

(cover picture) Zemp, Hugo
2002 The Wood and the Calabash. Masters of the Balafon series. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 47 minutes
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 8 Aug 2010 by:
Troy Belford <>
Beloit WI 53511
Medium: Film/Video
Senufo (African people) - Funeral customs and rites
Music - Côte d'Ivoire
Balo music

ABSTRACT:    Part of Hugo Zemp’s Masters of the Balafon series, this film follows the construction of a balafon, an African instrument resembling a xylophone and played with a pair of mallets. Hollow calabash gourds with spider silk membranes are used as resonators for the instrument. It is an indispensible instrument among the Senufo of the Ivory Coast, having many uses both in and outside of ritual activity.

This film begins by showing sequences of dancing that are edited together to give some idea of the rich ceremonial life that the balafon is a part of. The footage is from different specific ritual and community activities: initiations, Christian themed celebrations, young people’s nightly dance events, etc. The role of the balafon is important in many organized group activities, and the role of balafon accompaniment is an important feature of Senufo culture.

Etic information in this film is represented in flashes of large white text with a slight rectangular translucent background, instead of through narration or extra-translational subtitles. These text boxes are large enough to fill a quarter to half of the screen but are quick titles and act to frame any visuals that the audience might see, providing information that is not visually or orally manifested in the footage itself. Informant dialog translation is presented as yellow subtitles.

The balafon maker begins with a prayer to God, offering a chicken (whose throat is cut) for the tree that will be used to construct the instrument. The tree is cut down, and a second prayer is made to ask protection from misfortune in the construction of the balafon. A section of wood is removed from the tree, and the bark is removed from that section.

The chicken that was sacrificed is cooked and eaten by the balafon maker who cut the tree and a research assistant, though the chicken will also be eaten by the genies (spirits) of the forest. As the crew eats they discuss the film and what parts of the balafon making can be filmed.

A title announces that two balafons are needed and explains that the maker will work on them over the period of three weeks, with interruptions. After being roughly shaped, the wood is baked on an open air oven in order to dry it out, a process which takes two days. A wood plane is then used to further shape the wood. The wood is also cut with small marks that are not intended to affect the sound but add an element of beauty to the instrument.

There is an odd scene (though ingenious in its inclusion) that features a recipe for chicken in peanut sauce, making use of filmed footage of a woman cooking this dish. The inclusion of this short sequence is valuable since it provides a bit of perspective of women’s activities and a way to cut away from the admittedly boring prospect (at least by some) of watching someone doing woodwork. It also acts as a way to develop the intercutting of village activity, with the sound of the balafon maker’s rhythmic woodworking overlaid, into the main narrative not as an aside but as a parallel activity.

The keys are tuned to a model that the maker uses. Excess wood is carefully removed until the proper pitch is reached and the relative tone is pleasing to the carver’s ear. The ends of the wood are cut in order to make the pitch higher. In order to lower the tone the carver must hollow out the inside of the key. A title explains the technical information of the balafon musical tuning. The scale is based on an octave divided into five degrees of equal pitch distance, making it an “equi-distant pentatonic” – explaining why the sound is often processed by Western listeners as pleasing if somewhat exotic. The intervals are equal, though they are divided in such a way that they do not correspond necessarily with Western conceptualization of pitches as they are greater than a whole tone but less than a minor third.

Another title explains how two instruments are “played together and are tuned the same.” There is a solo balafon, a bit larger and with a richer tone, and a smaller accompanying balafon. Their relative size is not greatly different, though a close ear can hear can hear the tonal differences in the film sequences where the process of tuning are explained and shown. Following this the peanut chicken, with a large bowl of rice, is eaten by the balafon maker as well as a large group of other men and boys. The balafon maker remarks that it is because of the balafon carving that they have this chicken, recalling the chicken whose blood was sacrificed in the felling of the tree but whose body is consumed by the maker of the balafon. The added needs of the balafon, which at this point are still wooden keys laid on top of sticks to allow them to resonate, come into play. The man who will play the balafon is given instructions during the meal as to how to care for the balafon and the mallets. The meal also serves as a backdrop for rich ethnographic details to emerge from the balafon carver as he has a conversation with the man who will use the balafon. The carver explains that only a balafon player can be a carver, since otherwise they will not know if what they construct will be tuned right. It is not necessary that a player be a carver, but a carver must know how to play. The carver also admits to being the accompanist, a rhythm to the lead that is played by the solo balafon player. This admission results in minor teasing from others at the meal. This leads the viewer to recognize that the solo balafon player is seen as the more important musician in the same way that lead and rhythm instrumentalists are often differentiated by their importance in Western music.

Following the meal, the carver is shown constructing the body of the instrument. A wooden frame is constructed for the wooden keys. The frame is lashed tightly with ox hide, but the keys are attached to the frame using antelope hide. The keys are attached with a firmness that keeps them from coming undone during the transportation and playing of the instrument. The instrument is usually played while standing, attached by a strap (though not always).

The film segues to a market where the carver purchases several hollow calabash gourds to be used in the balafon. These calabash gourds are further hollowed and manipulated by the carver so that they can match they keys of the balafon. The gourds must be the proper thickness or they will break when the mouth is carved out to make the proper tone. These gourds are attached under the frame of the balafon, with their openings against the keys in order to act as resonators. Holes are carved into the calabash gourds and membranes of spider silk, taken from an egg cluster, are attached. The difference between a balafon with the finished membranes and one without is demonstrated. The membranes greatly affect the tone of the instrument, creating a noticeable difference in the sound. Wood sap, combined with lemon juice serves as an adhesive for the construction of the mallets. Once the balafons are completed the carver and the man who commissioned them play them as the title credits are shown and some young children dance to the produced music.

This film shows the construction of the balafon without the use of an omniscient narrator. The lack of overdubs is a real plus in this film, taking instead the approach of the translucent title box to present technical information. The subtitled information is conversational and retains an observational quality that is good to see in an ethnographic film since the desire to explain everything is hard to resist. The process of carving is sequentially rich, and more than once a filmed participant notes the desire of the film maker to film everything. Speaking from my own experiences showing carving in the Asmat and Korowai of New Guinea Island I can say that one of the hardest parts of making a film like this is distilling the footage in the editing process so it remains interesting. Sadly, most audiences can be bored to tears after only a couple of minutes of woodworking sequences, without any authoritative narration to distract them. Scenes of balafon construction are intercut with the context of village life in a way that helps show (but by no means is comprehensive) that the making of this instrument is only a part of the day.

This film will provide a positive experience for introductory courses in cultural anthropology, ethnomusicology and African studies/topics. The film retains a tone that should be positive for general audiences, but the process of wood carving can be boring for some so I would recommend that a pre-existing interest might best be engaged before showing the film. Any museum with a balafon in its collections would do well with having a copy of this film in their library.

The DER website has a link to the article in two parts that Zemp wrote on balafon music for Resound magazine ( A six and a half minute preview of the film can also be found on Youtube at the url