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The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments
Lois Ann AndersonLois Ann Anderson, James BladesJames Blades, George ListGeorge List, Linda L. O’Brien-RotheLinda L. O’Brien-Rothe

Xylophone (from Gk. xylon: ‘wood’; Fr. xylophone, claquebois; Ger. Xylophon, Holzarmonika; It. silofono). 

Percussion instrument with one or more tuned bars (often called keys) of bamboo, wood, or synthetic material of graduated length and pitch. For similar instruments made of stone or metal, see Lithophone or Metallophone.

  1. 1. General.

  2. 2. Europe.

  3. 3. Africa.

  4. 4. Southeast Asia.

  5. 5. Pacific.

  6. 6. Latin America.

1. General.

Xylophones are widely used in Europe and the Americas, Africa, Southeast Asia (mainland and insular), Melanesia, and the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia. Their prehistoric origins are unknown. Xylophones appear in the traditional music of Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, and other Central and Eastern European countries, as well as in modern Western concert and popular music, especially jazz. They take many different forms: for example, a set of bars (or slabs, tubes, etc.) can have one resonator (e.g. a pit or trough in the ground) for the entire instrument, or each bar can have a separate resonator.

Individual bars, each supported at two nodes of vibration, can be loose or temporarily or permanently attached to their support. They can rest on the legs or thighs of a player, on straw bundles or logs, or be suspended from cords. Insulating material such as rubber or plastic knobs, grass bundles, or cloth strips can interpose between bars and support to permit free vibration of the bars.

When the bars are suspended, the cord-and-bar assembly can be attached to the sides of a trough resonator or to vertical posts, or one end of the assembly can hang from a vertical post and the other be tied to the player’s leg or waist to form a curved arrangement. When played, the bars can be horizontal, oblique, curved, or vertical in relationship to the ground. The instrument can rest on the ground, be held in playing position by the performer, or hang from a cord slung over the player’s shoulders; the player can sit or stand facing the lengths or the widths of the bars. In modern Western orchestral xylophones the bars are arranged chromatically like a piano keyboard; elsewhere the arrangement varies. One, two, or three single beaters, or two pairs of beaters, can be used to strike the middle or near the ends of the bars; the heads of the beaters are usually wrapped with cloth or rubber if the bars are struck at the middle. Several persons can play the same instrument, or the notes of an instrument can be distributed among different players. They can be assigned single melodic lines (for one hand or two), octaves, interlocking pitch patterns, or rhythmic patterns.

Hornbostel and Sachs classified the xylophone as an Idiophone, ‘sets of percussion sticks’ (Hornbostel–Sachs number 111.212), and divided xylophones into two major types: those with bedded bars and those with suspended bars. Olga Boone, in her 1936 study of xylophones in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC), delineated two major types: those with loose bars and those with permanently fixed bars (the latter divided into those with or without resonators); she paid particular attention to the ways in which bars and resonators are mounted or attached, tuning patterns, nomenclature, and distribution.

In discussing the xylophone’s putative origins in Africa or Asia, she felt that conclusions were premature and that other, nonmusical evidence was needed to support any hypotheses. Later studies by A.M. Jones and P. Kirby favouring an Asian origin of the African xylophone lack full supporting evidence and are generally regarded today as unconvincing.

In India and China, the xylophone with trough resonator and suspended bars is considered a foreign instrument, Burmese in origin. Outside China, the xylophone with trough resonator and bedded bars is associated with Chinese communities. In West Java, for example, the gambang xylophone is played by the leader of the ensemble (gambang leromong) that accompanies song and dance at Chinese weddings. As a solo instrument, the gambang was played by Javanese women of Chinese ancestry to accompany the singing of pantun poetry. In Japan, the mokkin with 16 or 17 bedded bars is used in the geza offstage music for kabuki theatre. A similar xylophone was associated with Japanese societies that performed Chinese music of the Qing dynasty beginning in the 1820s and 1830s.

An instrument that came into J.-P. Rameau’s possession was also regarded as Chinese, though Rameau and later authors did not accept its Chinese provenance (see Schaeffner, 1955). In his discussion of Chinese tunings (Code de musique pratique, 1760), Rameau stated that it came from the Cape of Good Hope, and there is reason to believe, in the light of contemporary trade routes, that it could have been brought to the Cape from Java or elsewhere in the East Indies. After Rameau’s death (1764), Burney referred to such an instrument in the possession of Abbé Arnaud as Chinese (BurneyH, i.38; iii.32). A sketch of the instrument appeared in La Borde (Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne, 1780) with the caption ‘Instrument Chinois’, noting that Rameau improperly called the instrument orgue de Barbarie, that it was brought from the Indies and that it belonged at that time to Arnaud. The sketch shows a xylophone with bedded bars resting over a trapezoidal trough; the shape of the instrument resembles that of similarly constructed xylophones in insular Southeast Asia. The shape of the instrument’s base, the number of bars and the fanciful beaters provide possible further clues to its origin. The gambang xylophone used in the folk theatre lenong of Jakarta has bedded bars resting on a trapezoidal base, which is open, as in La Borde’s illustration; the gambang of the classical gamelan pelog-salendro in West Java can also have an open trapezoidal base. La Borde’s sketch shows 18 bars, while Burney mentioned a two-octave range or 11 pitches; the gambang of West Java commonly has 17 or 18 bars. Other features, for example curved beaters, are related to the trough xylophones of the Philippines and Sabah (Malaysia) or the tube xylophone of West Java.

2. Europe.

(i) History.

The first published mention of the xylophone in Europe was in 1511, when Schlick (Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten) referred to it as hültze glechter (‘wooden clatter’). Agricola (Musica instrumentalis deudsch, 1529) called a series of 25 wooden bars Strohfiedel (‘straw fiddle’). Praetorius (Theatrum instrumentorum, 1620) showed a series of 15 bars about 15 to 53 cm in length, arranged diatonically in a single row, pyramid fashion (like Agricola’s example). Mersenne (1636–7) illustrated and described two instruments (named claquebois patouilles and eschelletes) of grander scale. One has 17 bars, which are struck on the underside with individual beaters and arranged like a keyboard. In general, however, the European xylophone before modern times was a simple instrument with wooden bars loosely strung together or resting on ropes of straw, giving rise to the name Strohfiedel. It was very much an instrument of itinerant musicians until the 19th century, when it rose to prominence as a solo instrument and attracted the notice of Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Liszt, all of whom spoke of the expertise of Michal Guzikow, a Polish virtuoso. Mendelssohn said, ‘I must own that the skill of the man beats everything that I could have imagined, for with his wooden sticks resting on straw, his hammers also being of wood, he produces all that is possible with the most perfect instrument’. Guzikow’s instrument consisted of 28 wooden bars arranged semitonally in four rows resting on five straw supports.

During the 19th century the European xylophone appeared under various names and guises (xylosistron, tryphon, etc.). The orchestral instrument had four rows and was similar in many ways to that of Guzikow. The bass notes were nearest the player, with the centre two rows corresponding to the white keys of the piano and the outer rows to the black keys. Ferdinand Kauer’s Sei variazioni (cl810) contains solo passages for the xylophone, possibly the earliest orchestral use of the instrument. In 1852 it was mentioned in J.G. Kastner’s Les danses des morts. Better known is Saint-Saëns’s use of the instrument to represent rattling bones in his Danse macabre (1874), and later (as ‘Fossiles’) in Le carnaval des animaux (1886). The playing technique of the four-row instrument differed from that of the modern xylophone, and apparently sightreading was particularly difficult. The modern xylophone originated about the turn of the 20th century, although the four-row instrument is still played in Eastern Europe. Early 20th-century composers who scored for the xylophone include Mahler (Sixth Symphony, 1903–4); Puccini (Madama Butterfly, 1904); Strauss (Salome, 1905); Elgar (Wand of Youth, Suite no.2, 1908); Debussy (Ibéria, 1909); Stravinsky (The Firebird, 1909–10); and Delius (Eventyr, 1917). In his last work (Turandot, completed by Alfano, 1926) Puccini wrote for xylophone and xylofon basso (the latter part now usually played on a marimba using fairly hard sticks). An extended and florid part for xylophone occurs in Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony (1919–27).

Complex writing for the xylophone has revolutionized its use compared with the demands of earlier composers, who, with occasional exceptions such as Stravinsky in The Wedding (1923), wrote only short passages. The demands on the modern xylophonist are heavy, especially in Tippett’s The Vision of St Augustine (1960–5) and many of his subsequent compositions, such as Concerto for Orchestra (1962–3) and Third Symphony (1970–72); Messiaen’s Chronochromie (1960); Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître (1952–4, rev. 1957); and Henze’s Piano Concerto no.2 (1967) and Ode an der Westwind (1953). The part in Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître (1953–5, rev. 1957) was widely regarded as unplayable when first published. Works using the xylophone as a solo instrument include Alan Hovhaness’s Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints (1965) and Thomas Pitfield’s Sonata for xylophone (1967). The keyboard xylophone is now virtually obsolete, but Bartók scored for it (Tastenxylophon) in Bluebeard’s Castle (1911); nowadays the part is usually played on two xylophones.

The xylophone part is written (mostly in the treble clef) an octave lower than its sounding pitch, although Messiaen and Birtwistle mostly notated xylophone parts at sounding pitch. Normally only one staff is used; exceptions include Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (1911; ‘Laideronette’), where it is given a double staff.

(ii) Construction.

The arrangement of the modern Western instrument follows that of a piano keyboard. Deagan of Chicago is thought to have been the first to take the single-row Guatemalan and other Central American instruments as a model for producing the keyboard-derived version, which superseded the older four-row pattern. As with other bar-percussion instruments, the bars are either suspended from cords passing through their nodal points, or they rest at their nodes on a cushion of felt or similar insulation. In general the row of bars corresponding to the black keys of the piano is raised, keyboard fashion. The compass of the orchestral xylophones is generally either four octaves ascending from c′, or three and a half octaves ascending from ƒ or g′. The larger instrument is preferable to avoid octave transposition often necessary on a smaller instrument. The bars are of the finest rosewood (or wood of similar resonance and durability), or of new synthetic materials such as Kelon (a pultrusion silicate) or Klyperon, prepared from synthetic reinforced resins. The pitch of each bar is governed by its length and thickness; thinning the underside of the bar lowers the pitch considerably. In the modern orchestral xylophone each bar is suspended over a tube resonator whose air-column frequency matches the pitch of the bar. The bars give a bright penetrating sound when struck with hard-headed mallets. Softer beaters produce a mellow sound and are especially useful on the lower notes.

3. Africa.

(i) Introduction.

Oral traditions mention the xylophone in the 13th-century kingdom of Mali; the first written reference, also from Mali, comes from the mid-14th century. Describing two Muslim festivals at the court, Ibn Battūta (Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325–1354, trans. H.A.R. Gibb, 1929) mentioned an instrument made of reeds with small calabashes at its lower end. In the second half of the 16th century, dos Santos, a Portuguese missionary living among the Karanga in what is now Mozambique, mentioned the ambira, a gourd-resonated instrument. From the mid-17th century onwards, European travellers to the western coast of Africa refer to the instrument, most often with calabash resonators; the most common names for it were bala, balafo(n), and ballard(s) in West Africa and marimba in the Bantu-speaking areas—the same terms used by writers referring to the instrument in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Early 20th-century European studies of the African xylophone paid particular attention to organological features of instruments in Berlin and Tervuren museum collections. Olga Boone focussed on construction details and tuning measurements of xylophones of the former Belgian Congo (DRC) according to ethnic origin, the distribution of xylophone types there and in other areas of Africa, and the social context of the instrument. She examined 108 xylophones at the Musée du Congo Belge (now the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale) in Tervuren. Her discussion proceeds from the simpler instruments to the more complex; however, she stated that her order of categories did not necessarily represent stages of evolution. The present discussion is primarily concerned with physical characteristics of the instrument, based on the types distinguished by Boone; additional types are included for those instruments not found in the DRC. There are two main categories: xylophones with loose bars, in which the bars are independent of each other and their support, and those with fixed bars, in which the bars are permanently attached between themselves and to their support.

(ii) Loose bar xylophones.

For performance, loose bars are assembled on temporary supports, which can be the player’s legs, banana-tree logs, straw bundles, or logs padded with grass. Bars can be completely loose with upright sticks placed between them to prevent their striking each other. Alternatively, holes can be bored in the side of the bar near each end through which a cord is strung and twisted around the dividing upright sticks. Sticks can also be placed vertically between bars at one side of the instrument and through a hole in the middle of each bar at the other side. Bars are normally struck near their ends with wooden sticks.

A xylophone type intermediate between loose and fixed bars is found among the Sena people in central Mozambique and the Lozi in western Zambia where bars strung to each other are temporarily mounted on straw bundles; performers strike the middle of the bars with wooden or rubber-tipped sticks.

(a) Leg xylophones.

Bars rest on the seated player’s thighs or (as in Madagascar) shins. The instrument is played by young girls or boys as part of initiation activities in Senegal; it is also used as a noisemaker to keep birds and monkeys out of gardens. The instrument’s resonance can be enhanced by a hole in the ground, or by a pot or calabash placed underneath it. Two to seven bars are played by one or two players.

Distribution: Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, southeast Nigeria, Central African Republic, Zambia, Malawi, and Madagascar.

(b) Pit xylophones.

A pit can be an integral part of the loose bar xylophone. Four to 13 bars are mounted across grass bundles or banana-tree logs placed at opposite sides of a pit. Among the Yoruba in southwest Nigeria and the Gun in southeast Benin, two such xylophones are played together, one or both instruments over a pit. If the instrument is large, the player sits between two groups of bars with his legs in the pit. This type of xylophone can be used as a practice instrument, as in northwest Ghana, where it is played by children, students of the instrument, and adults without a gourd-resonating xylophone. Among the Luba of the southern DRC, the tuning of the bars for an instrument that will have individual resonators is tested by laying the bars across a pit, or mounting them on banana-tree logs or across a hollow calabash.

Distribution: Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, southeast DRC, northwest Uganda, and southern Malawi.

(c) Log xylophones.

Instruments consisting of loose bars resting across banana-tree logs, or a combination of straw bundles (for insulation) and banana-tree logs, appear in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They have from six to 22 bars, which are usually larger than those of any other type of African xylophone. It is common for two to as many as six players to interlock different melodic patterns on the same instrument, or two players facing each other can each play one instrument. The bars are usually struck near their ends with one or two plain wooden beaters.

Distribution: Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Chad, northern DRC, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and southwest Ethiopia.

(iii) Fixed bar xylophones.

(a) Without calabashes.

Bars are mounted on runners, or a resonator such as a box or trough, to which insulation material is attached. In northwest DRC, two pairs of beaters are used by one player, and adjacent bars are commonly tuned in octaves. The instrument with runners, found in northwest DRC and among the Yaka in southwest DRC, can have crosspieces at the ends to keep the runners apart. The instrument with bars resting on a trough resonator appears in northwest DRC, southeast Nigeria, and central Mozambique. The box-resonated xylophone is found near the southeast coast of Kenya, on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, and in northeast Tanzania.

Among the Igbo of southeast Nigeria, two bars are attached to a grass collar that surrounds the top of an open clay pot.

(b) With one or two calabashes (individual resonators).

A bar is suspended from cords strung through holes near its ends and attached to the upper ends of two arcs of wooden sticks glued to the top of the resonator. The player changes the instrument’s timbre by closing and opening the mouth of the resonator with the left hand. The instrument can be played in groups of two or more, with each one tuned differently, and is commonly used at hunting ceremonies.

Distribution: southeast DRC, Zambia, and southern Malawi.

Parallel curved poles and two crosspieces form the support frame of an instrument with two calabashes. The ends of the cords that suspend the bars pass over the crosspieces and are tied to the ends of the poles, and the calabashes are suspended on rods placed in holes in each of the poles.

Distribution: among the Tshokwe and Lunda of south-central DRC and the Luvale of eastern Angola.

(c) With multiple calabashes.

Instruments differ from area to area in their type of frame construction and the attachment of bars and calabashes. Many xylophones in the DRC and neighbouring areas have in common an arc, or bail, which is attached to the sides of the frame (see types 1–3, 5–6 below). The bail keeps the instrument in the proper playing position in front of the player when it is slung from his shoulders. When the player is seated, he can stabilize the instrument by balancing the bail with his feet. The bars can rest on insulation material or on leather cords, or they can be suspended. Calabashes can be hung from the framework or glued to a frame; they are either suspended directly by rods, or by strings secured to rods fastened across a horizontal frame. The calabashes can be glued to a centre board, which can have holes to accommodate them. While a round or elongated calabash is the most common resonator, bamboo, cattle horn, or wood is also used. Buzzing membranes (mirlitons) are attached to one or more holes in the bottom or side of each resonator; when they are attached to the side, ancillary tubes or round pieces of calabash can be added to protect the membranes. The instrument is played with one to four rubber-tipped beaters, and the bars are struck in the middle; occasionally two players play the same instrument. Several different xylophones can be played in the same ensemble.

Type 1 : with resonators suspended from rods (Boone 3a).

Two runners are attached to the ends of the bail and insulation is fixed to their top edge; rods pierce the calabashes near their tops and pass through holes in the sides of the runners. Rattan is intertwined around the tops of the calabashes to secure them. The bars are strung together by cords and rest on the insulation. Some modern instruments do not have a bail but have legs inserted between the ends of the runners and the crosspieces at the end of the instrument, so that the player can stand.

Distribution: south-central and southeast DRC, southwest Zambia, and southern Malawi.

Type 2 : with suspended bars (Boone 3b).

Parallel curved poles constitute the frame for this instrument. The bars are strung on two cords that pass over the crosspieces or ends of the bail and are tied to the ends of the poles and the crosspieces or ends of the bail. The calabashes are strung on cords and are fixed to a rattan cord encircling the poles. On large instruments with a more pronounced curve from the central bars to either end of the instrument (found among the Lunda and Tshokwe of Angola), the suspended calabashes are supported by rods that pass through holes in the poles; the suspended series of bars is held firm by another cord that goes through the cord on the underside of the bars and is attached to the poles. On the xylophone of the Nsenga people in central Zambia, the cord from the underside of the bars to the runners also secures the rods that suspend the calabashes. This instrument is fixed between poles set vertically in the ground, and the bars hang vertically; on the Lunda and Tshokwe instruments, the plane of the bars is oblique to the ground. When two Tshokwe instruments are played together, the second can consist only of bars suspended between vertical poles, with a round pit in the ground below the centre of the instrument.

Distribution: southwest DRC, eastern Angola, and central Zambia.

Type 3 : with quadrilateral frame.

This combines characteristics of types 1 and 2, and appears to have been modified early in the 20th century. The support now consists of a four-sided frame with parallel ends whose sides taper towards the smallest bars. A bail is attached to the ends of the frame, and insulation material is fixed to the upper edges of its sides. The calabashes are suspended from rods placed in holes in the sides of the frame and hang below their respective bars in order to obtain the best resonance. Thus the arrangement of the resonators is staggered. The bars formerly rested on the insulation material, a cord passing through a hole in the far side of the bar, under another cord attached to the insulation material, back to the surface through the same hole, and under the insulation cord between bars; on the near side, a cord went over the bar and through the insulation material between bars. An additional pair of thicker cords is now added to suspend the bars from the top, passing through the bar attachment cords. In effect, the thin cords become loops for the suspension cords between bars and between the holes. The suspension cord passes under a thin cord strung through two vertical holes on the far side of the bar and is knotted to the thin cord between bars; on the near side, the thick cord passes through the thin cord between bars.

Groups of four or five different sizes of these xylophones are part of the mendzan ensemble in Cameroon and Gabon; each instrument has its own name and can overlap in pitch with the instrument next in size. One such ensemble in Cameroon has individual instruments with 11, 11, 10, 4, and 4 bars, while such an ensemble in Gabon consists of instruments with 9, 9, 8, 6, and 2 bars. Reserve bars are added to the larger instruments during construction. Thick beaters of soft wood are used to strike the middle of the bars.

Distribution: south and south-central Cameroon and northern Gabon.

Type 4 : with calabashes suspended obliquely.

Two horizontal poles extending through holes in side pieces that rest on the ground form the support for this instrument, which is more than 2 metres long. Elongated calabashes, with an oblique cut at one side of their mouths, are suspended from the pole nearest the player and are secured by a thick supporting rope of braided bark to the second pole, so that they are almost parallel to the ground when the instrument is in playing position. The 21 or 22 rectangular bars rest on thongs stretched across the poles and are tuned to a heptatonic scale by thinning the centre of the playing side to leave a raised portion from the nodal point to each end, where designs are carved. The bars are strung together by a thong that passes through a hole in the flat section of the bar at the edge of the raised portion, goes around the support thong, and passes back to the surface through the same hole. The instrument is played by two men using five beaters. The player of the highest-pitched bars begins the performance with an ostinato pattern played in octaves or other intervals, or with a single melodic line distributed between his two hands. The player of the lowest bars interlocks a different melodic pattern with his right hand and adds a rhythmic bass pattern characterized by repeated pitches with two beaters in his left hand. The ends of these beaters cross in his hand so that they spread in an angle of almost 90 degrees, facilitating wide leaps. The Venda instrument, mbila mtondo, was formerly an important instrument played at the chief’s kraal.

Distribution: northern Transvaal, among the Venda, Kwebo, and Lovedu.

Type 5 : with centre board and bridges (or distance pieces) (Boone 3c).

The frame of the instrument consists of a flat centre board with calabash resonators inserted into circular holes, and wooden bridges tied across the board between the holes. The ends of the bridges are tied to each other by leather thongs, which extend the length of the instrument and also serve as tension thongs to support the bars, which are strung together by another set of cords. On some instruments insulation is attached to the edges of the centre board. The calabashes are fixed to the centre board by resin applied to the edges of the holes on both sides of the board. In Nigeria, the resonators are long and slender calabashes, cowhorns, or wooden cones in the shape of cowhorns. For the ten-bar instruments of the Azande in the northeast DRC, a pair of beaters in each hand enables the player to strike octaves on adjacent bars. The most common tuning pattern (where numbers indicate the degree of the pentatonic scale) is: 2–2–3–3–4–4–5–5–l–l, with the lowest octave pair on the player’s right. Among the Chopi of Mozambique, the centre board has two tenons on each end that fit into holes in the legs of the instrument, while the ends of the curved or rectangular bail fit over the tenons. The bars rest on tension thongs and are supported by thin wooden bridges attached by fibre to the centre board between each pair; the tension thongs pass through holes near the ends of the bridges. The bars are strung together by a pair of long leather cords. The cord further from the player passes through a hole in the bar, under the supporting tension thong and back to the surface through the same hole; the near cord goes over each bar and under the tension thong between bars.

Distribution: (with bridge between bars): east-central Nigeria, northern Cameroon, southern Chad, southwest Central African Republic, northeast DRC, and southern Sudan; (with bridge between pair of bars): southern Mozambique and northern Transvaal.

Type 6 : with centre board and insulating cushions (Boone 3d).

This instrument resembles the preceding one, except that the bars rest on insulating cushions mounted at some distance parallel to and on either side of the centre board, rather than on cords stretched between bridges. The centre board and the insulating cushions, which consist of fibre, bark cloth, or some other material covering wooden branches, are attached to the ends of the curved bail, though on some instruments the insulation is attached to the edges of the centre board. Some instruments have bridges; some have calabashes suspended from a piece of rattan, the ends of which are inserted into the insulating cushions. In some areas, four beaters are used by each player. In northwest DRC, adjacent bars are tuned in octaves, usually in the order: 2–2–3–3–4–4–5–5–l–l.

Distribution: northwest DRC, south-central Central African Republic, and southern Chad (with bridges).

Type 7 : with centre board set within oval frame.

An oval-shaped wooden bar surrounds the entire instrument. The bars are suspended, and the cowhorn resonators are glued and tied to the solid curved base, the back of which is engraved with abstract designs. Six to eight bars are encircled by cords near the ends of each bar, and the ends of the cords are attached to the oval frame; they are oblique to the mouths of the resonators. The seated player supports the instrument between his knees at the middle of the oval frame, and a pair of Y-shaped wooden beaters allows him to strike octaves simultaneously. The bars on a Bura instrument, the tsindza, are arranged: 3–4–5–1–1–2–2.

Distribution: northeast Nigeria.

Type 8 : with open frame.

Bars are mounted on an open framework consisting of four vertical and eight horizontal strips of wood lashed together. Round calabash resonators are suspended below each bar by means of suspension rods that extend across and beyond the limits of the upper horizontal frame. In order to accommodate all the resonators within the framework, they are arranged in two zig-zag rows. The suspension rods for the resonators are secured to the frame by leather strips; another long cord or leather strap serving as insulation for the resting bars then passes over the rods, and a third long twisted cord secures the bars together on each side of the instrument. The latter cords are tied to the tops of the vertical posts, and sometimes also to the horizontal crosspieces at each end of the instrument.

The size of the instrument varies. Smaller instruments (in the west and central area of distribution) can rest on the ground, or be slung from the player’s shoulders with the instrument perpendicular or parallel to the body. The row of bars curves slightly at the broader end of the instrument, where ogee-shaped horizontal crosspieces also accommodate the larger calabashes within the frame. Larger instruments (in the eastern area of distribution) rest on the ground in performance. The curvature of the row is more pronounced, allowing room for the large resonators and making the entire row easily accessible. The number of bars ranges from 12 to 21. Tuning is predominantly heptatonic, though the instruments of Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Ivory Coast are pentatonic. The player uses a pair of rubber-tipped beaters and can also wear bells around his wrist. The generic term for the instrument is balo or bala. In the eastern area of distribution, a commonly used term is gyil, with prefixes or suffixes to denote specific types, sizes, or contexts of usage. Xylophones are often played singly or in groups with other instruments. To the west, among Manding-speaking peoples, it is often played by professional musicians of the jali caste; in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Ivory Coast, it is an important instrument at funeral ceremonies.

Distribution: Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, northeast Ivory Coast, Mali, southwest Burkina Faso, and northwest Ghana.

4. Southeast Asia.

(i) Insular.

Of the many types of xylophone found in this area, the instrument with bars resting on cloth or rattan strips at the edges of a wooden trough (trough xylophone with bedded bars) is common in classical gamelan ensembles in Java, Madura, Sumatra, and Kalimantan. A Central Javanese double gamelan can have two or three xylophones (one for salendro tuning and one or two for pelog tuning), but only one is played at a time. In folk gamelan or other ensembles in Java and Bali, for example the Balinese gamelan joged and gambang, more than one type of xylophone can be played simultaneously.

Xylophones with suspended bars or tubes show the greatest variety. A few examples of a type with bars suspended over individual resonators—often a substitute for another instrument—are found in Bali, but that country’s most ancient ensembles (caruk, gambang, and luang) have a trough-resonated xylophone with suspended bars. A common term for the xylophone in this area is gambang (gabbang, gambangan), but it can mean a different type of instrument depending on the ensemble in which it is used; in Sabah, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines, gabbang always refers to a trough xylophone with bedded bars. The beaters, with rubber on the curved underside, are delicately carved in a bird- or kidney-shapes and resemble the simpler curved beaters used for the calung renteng in West Java.

(ii) Mainland.

Comparatively few xylophone types are found on the mainland. A two- or four-bar xylophone has been reported in West Malaysia. Suspended tubes or wooden bars in a rope ladder arrangement appear in central Vietnam and northeast Thailand. Among the Jorai, Bahnar, and Rhade people in Vietnam, the torung consists of 14 to 20 tubes suspended between two players, one of whom holds an end of the cord; the other end is tied to the second player’s leg. In Thailand, the kaw law or bong lang with 12 wooden bars is played by the Lao people in Kalasin province. The upper end of the instrument is tied to a tree and the lower end to the player’s leg. These instruments resemble the calung renteng of West Java, though the order of the tubes and bars and the type of beater differ.

In Kelantan, Malaysia, groups of ten players, each with a xylophone with one bar suspended over a coconut resonator (kertok kelapa), compete with similar groups; two such instruments may also accompany the harvest dance. The trough-resonated xylophone, gambang, with bedded bars, appears only in the Malaysian court gamelan of Trengganu, where it accompanies the joget dance. The xylophone with bars suspended over a trough resonator is important in classical instrumental ensembles in Thailand, Kampuchea, and Laos and is also used for chamber music in Myanmar. The leader of the Thai, Kampuchean, and Laotian pī phāt and mahōrī ensembles plays the ranātēk, an instrument with 21 bars suspended over a curved resonator and resting on a pedestal. In enlarged versions of the same ensembles, a larger xylophone (ranāt thum) is added: 17 bars are suspended over a rectangular resonator with sloping sides and a curved upper surface. The instrument, larger in the pī phāt than in the mahōrī ensemble, rests on short legs, sometimes with casters. The same type of xylophone might have been used in an ensemble that accompanied the ashek dance at the 16th- and 17th-century Malay court of Patani, and later at the Kelantan court. Women played an instrument thought to have been a boat-shaped xylophone, and a set of 11 drums, while a man played the rebab; the xylophone and set of drums were also used to accompany pantun singing. In Kelantan, barrel drums have now replaced cylindrical drums, while a set of seven gongs has replaced the xylophone in the ensemble that accompanies the dance.

In Myanmar, the pat-talā with 20 to 25 (usually 24) bars suspended over a curved resonator and resting on a pedestal is played with an end-blown flute (palwei), or in chamber music as vocal accompaniment; it is taught by hsaīng-waīng musicians as a beginner’s instrument. It was also played at the Chinese court during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911); a description (in the Ta Qing hui tien, 1899) of the smaller of two Burmese ensembles that played for banquets includes the 22-bar ‘pa-ta-la’, as well as harp, the mī-gyaùng zither, a three-string bowed lute, the palwei flute, a drum, and a pair of cymbals.

The xylophone is rare in India. Surviving examples have bars suspended above a curved resonator, resting on a central pedestal. The kashtha tarang with 22 bars is used as a solo instrument in certain modern ensembles. Popley (1921), who identified the instrument as Burmese, used the nomenclature bastran for a 20- or 21-bar instrument. Another xylophone, patti-taranga, has a rectangular resonator resting on short round legs, with ten suspended bars (Schaeffner, 1935). Historical literature refers to neither instrument, and they are not used in folk traditions.

5. Pacific.

The leg xylophone is common in west Melanesia and is used primarily for courtship; in some areas, women are not allowed to see it. The instrument appears on the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain, on New Ireland, the Duke of York Islands, and Tami Island, in the Morobe region of eastern Papua New Guinea. Usually two wooden bars (convex on the upper side, flat on the underside) are laid over the player’s thighs and struck with two sticks. The player can sit with his legs over a pit or over a mound of earth; alternatively, the bars can rest on banana tree logs or branches. Names for the instrument include tinbuk, timbuk, timbul, tinbut, timboik, tutupele, or lau lau. The two-note instrument is used for playing signal patterns. On New Ireland and the Duke of York Islands, the xylophone is played for dancing; only on Tami Island do women play the xylophone, at times when they must be absent from the village.

6. Latin America.

The xylophone in Latin America, known as the ‘marimba’, is popular in Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil; in Suriname (as gambang) it is used in gamelan ensembles by musicians of Javanese descent. In Brazil, however, it has lost its former importance as a solo instrument and now only accompanies such dances as the congada. The two types of marimba still in use in Brazil are portable and have six and 11 bars, respectively, struck with wooden sticks.

The marimba is the most popular folk instrument in the Guatemalan Republic and has come to be a symbol of Guatamalan independence. It is believed to be of African origin, introduced during the early colonial period by African slaves. This argument, which is not undisputed, rests mainly on the similarity of the marimba de tecomates (the original form of the Guatemalan instrument) to African xylophones, the African derivation of the word ‘marimba’, and the lack of archaeological evidence for the existence of marimbas in pre-Columbian America.

The earliest account of the marimba in Guatemala appears in the work of Domingo Juarros, a 17th-century historian, who lists it among instruments played by the Amerindians in 1680. During the 18th century it became widely dispersed among the Amerindians, and its presence is noted at public events, both civil and religious. The growing popularity of the marimba among Latinos in the 19th century led to the expansion of the range to five and, later, six and seven octaves, allowing the addition of a fourth player. During the celebration of Guatamalan independence in 1821, the marimba took its place as the national instrument.

The marimba de tecomates has bars or percussion plates suspended above a trapezoidal framework by cords that pass through threading pins and the nodal points of each bar. Beneath each bar hangs a tuned calabash resonator, near the base of which a vibrating membrane of pig intestine is affixed to a ring of wax surrounding an aperture. This mirliton produces a characteristic buzzing called charleo when the bars are struck. The older form of this marimba, the marimba de arco, is portable and is carried by a strap attached to the ends of the frame and passing across the player’s shoulders. The bars are kept from touching the player’s body by an arched branch (arco) affixed to the framework. A later type has four legs and lacks the arco. The nearly diatonic range employs 19 to 26 bars. A bar’s pitch can be raised during performance by applying a lump of wax, sometimes mixed with bits of lead, to its underside. For this reason such marimbas are called marimba de ceras (marimba ‘of wax’). The bars are struck with mallets (baquetas) made of flexible wooden sticks with strips of raw rubber wrapped around the heads to form a ball. The tips of the mallets intended for bass bars are soft; those for treble bars are harder and smaller. One to three players hold a mallet in each hand, or two in one hand and one in the other. Other pitches can be produced by striking the extreme ends of the bars with the wooden end of the mallet. The marimba de tecomates is now seldom played by Latino musicians, who prefer more Westernized forms of the instrument.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the marimba sencilla was developed, in which cajones harmonicos, wooden boxes constructed to resemble gourds, were substituted for gourd resonators. In other particulars, the marimba sencilla is identical to the marimba de tecomates. During this period, the marimba de cinchos (also called marimba de acero, marimba de hierro), with metal bars and box resonators, became popular and was played with guitar accompaniment. Types with glass bars and others with bamboo-tube resonators were also developed.

The addition of chromatic bars to the diatonic scale was a late 19th-century development, usually attributed to Sebastian Hurtado in 1894. The name of this type, marimba doble, refers to the double row of bars for diatonic and chromatic pitches. Unlike the arrangement of a piano keyboard, in which sharp keys stand to the right of their corresponding naturals, in many Guatemalan instruments the sharps are placed directly behind the naturals.

The marimba doble is often played in pairs: the larger, marimba grande, has a range of six and a half octaves (about 78 bars) and uses four players; the smaller marimba cuache (also called marimba picolo, marimba requinta, and marimba tenor), ranges over five octaves (about 50 bars) and uses three players. To these two instruments are often added a three-string bass, snare or bass drums, cymbals, accordion, and wind instruments such as saxophones, trumpets, or clarinets. While the folkloric character of contemporary marimba doble ensembles is somewhat obscured by the influences of popular Latin American and North American styles, highland village marimba sencilla ensembles still maintain traditional style and repertory.

The marimba in Colombia can have as many as 25 bars or as few as 21, though 24 is usual. The bars are made of various palm woods but most frequently of chontaduro. Each bar has a resonator of guadua bamboo. The bars are placed on the frame in a single row in groups of four, each group being separated from the other by a pasador (crosspiece) of chonta. The pasadores are part of the framework that supports the bars and resonators and also function as points of visual reference for the players. Beginning with the smallest bar and moving downwards, the groups of four bars are known alternately as tablas duras and tablas blandas. In a group of eight the highest dura and the lowest blanda form an octave. A series of 24 bars is thus composed of three disjunct octave segments: 8765 4321, 7654 3217, 6543 2176. The seven highest bars are tuned to produce approximate neutral 3rds between bars 8, 6, 4, 2 and bars 7, 5, 3. The remaining bars are tuned in octaves with the bars above them. On the marimba itself the bars are of course arranged in reverse order from that indicated above: the highest octave segment is to the right and the lowest to the left. Each of the two players uses two sticks tipped with small balls of raw rubber; one plays the bordón (an ostinato lower part), the other the requinta or tiple (upper part).

The marimba-orquesta, an ensemble incorporating a marimba, is widely popularized in Mexican tourist centres. The instruments are frequently municipal property, and musicians can be exempt from certain other civic responsibilities by virtue of their service in these groups. The ensemble plays music from the son repertory and makes constant use of corrido accompaniments.


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Lois Ann Anderson (1, 3–4, 5); James Blades (2); George List, Linda L. O’Brien-Rothe. (6)