On my way back from the market this afternoon I heard the sound of children chattering mixed with the now familiar tone of a large xylophone. As I rounded a corner it all became clearer. A group of men were sitting under a tree surrounded by the parts of a traditional xylophone, whilst a gaggle of very young children were testing a recently constructed one by bashing it with beaters. One of the joys of this instrument is that anyone can play one with no experience or talent and it still sounds quite tuneful.
I climbed off my bicycle to watch and remained there for some time. The men were quite happy for me to ask questions, take photos and generally get in the way! The skeleton base of the xylophone was an old one which they were re-furbishing. The wooden notes are made of teak and a basic adze was used to slice pieces off until it made the required tone. The residue from pounding shere nuts is used to season and treat the wood and cow hide straps hold the instrument together. The only modern material is the nylon rope that attaches the wooden blades to the frame.
The parts that fascinate me the most are the calabashes that are suspended underneath each note. Of course they are chosen by size and graduate along the instrument. A man was paring slices off some to get the correct tone and also making small holes in the sides. I was interested to see him cover the holes with pieces of plastic film. I wasn’t able to make him understand my question as to how that affected the notes.
Men of all ages were helping and a young teenager seemed very knowledgeable about the process. I am sure these skills are passed down through families and I could tell it wouldn’t be long before this young man was able to construct his own xylophone from scratch. I imagine these families are also the ones called upon to play during funerals. Unfortunately, these are the occasions when the xylophone is heard most often, although the sounds accompany dancing and more cheerful events too.