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John Harvard's Journal

"The Genius of the Balafon"

January-February 2006

In West Africa, Neba Solo, born Souleymane Traoré in 1969, is often called “the genius of the balafon,” says Ingrid T. Monson. So skilled a player, composer of songs, singer, and innovator is he that in 2002 his homeland, Mali, named him a chevalier de l’ordre national. “He’s a bit like the Charlie Parker and the Charles Mingus of the balafon combined—the Charlie Parker because he is so virtuosic and the Mingus because he is an incredible composer as well,” says Monson, the Quincy Jones professor of African-American music. (A sometime performer on the trumpet herself, she has recorded five albums with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, of which she was a founding member.) At her instigation, the Committee on African Studies and the Department of Music brought Solo and his group of musicians and dancers to Harvard for a week this fall, culminating in a rollicking concert in Sanders Theatre on November 10.

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Neba Solo's modifications to the traditional wood-and-calabash xylophone of Mali have increased its range and weight, but he can still sling the instrument around his neck when he wants to wander with it.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Earlier, speaking in French with Monson translating, Solo explained about balafons to 35 students, music professors, and the merely curious at a lecture-demonstration in Loker Commons that was sponsored by the Office for the Arts’ Learning from Performers series. A balafon is a wooden xylophone with an opened-top calabash resonator below each slat. These gourd resonators each have a second, small hole through which air exits; each hole is covered by a tightly stretched membrane—perhaps of spider-cocoon fibers or cigarette paper, although Solo uses plastic—which adds an abrasive buzzing sound when the slat is struck hard. Solo played and sang and one of his group danced. He then took questions and invited listeners to come forward and have a go at the slats themselves.

The balafon has many musical cousins around the world—the concert xylophone, the glockenspiel, the vibes played by such jazzmen as Lionel Hampton and Gary Burton, Latin America’s marimba, Indonesia’s gamelan orchestra—instruments both percussive and melodic.

When Solo was 18, he heard Alpha Blondy’s reggae recording Jerusalem, admired the bass line, and conceived a desire to tamper with his traditional 17-slat balafon by adding three bass slats and altering the tuning. His balafonist father was not at all sure about the propriety of this, but gave permission for the experiment on condition that if he did not like the result, Solo would desist from innovation. The son wrought his changes and, moreover, built a balafon that he played exactly backwards, soloing with his left hand on the lower notes and playing the accompaniment with his right hand, “adding,” says Monson, “some very complicated and interesting bass lines to the texture of the music.”

His father approved. At his lecture-demonstration, Solo deconstructed, first playing a line of music with his right hand, then adding a different line with his left hand, then bursting into song with a third line. “Not many balafonists sing while they play,” says Monson, “but he wanted to do something different.” (To hear Neba Solo perform, go to www.harvardmagazine.com.)

Ingrid Monson, chair of Harvard’s music department, joins Solo in making music for two balafons.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

He does not sing about his beating heart, incidentally. The traditional role of the musician in Mali, says Monson, is not only to entertain, but to present messages and promote dialogue on contemporary social issues. Solo’s compositions comment on vaccination, AIDS, female excision, protecting the environment, political corruption, and the role of custom in modern life. Traditionally the balafon is played at all sorts of social events: festivals, dances, funerals, weddings, and naming ceremonies.

This is how Traoré got his stage name. He was born in the village of Neba. Solo is short for Souleymane. As he began his career, people would say to each other, ‘You’ve got to go hear that Solo from Neba.’

In 1995 he won first prize in the balafon competition at the Dundunba Top festival in Koutiala, Mali, and went on to become a major national star and well known also in France. He was knighted after the success of his recording Can 2002, a soccer anthem, and has since made several albums, among them Kené Balafons. He first came to the United States in 2003 for the Smithsonian Folk Festival. “I can testify,” says Monson, “that I saw in Mali a balafon contest in which several groups got up and tried to play like him. But there’s only one Neba Solo.”