Tag Archives: balafon

Vieux Balani, live and direct

Vieux Balani – Balafon

Spent a few days in the South of Mali in Sikasso — a region stunningly different from the North. This is green Mali, with rice paddies, giant tropical trees, and red earth. Water is everywhere. People like to joke that everything is free in Sikasso. It’s one of the only regions that is truly self sustainable and can grow its own food. It’s also home to a myriad of deep tradition and history.

I’ve come here to research the Balafon, only scratching the surface, for a future trip next year. I soon find myself at the home of Soumana “Vieux Balani” Diarra, who plays in the orchestre of local griot Isa Keita. We visit his house in the late afternoon, clearing a space of traditional medicines, tiny packets of powders wrapped and bound in leaves. In addition to the Balafon, Vieux makes various charms that he sells by the roadside. He also makes a mean millet beer.

We record a short session, accompanied by Amidou Koita on the Ngoni. A musician stops in to sing for a bit, and soon the door is crowded from neighbors who have gathered to watch as well. The audience is global too – we take a small video and post it to Instagram and Facebook while they are playing (longer video here). At the end of the session, we gather around the cellphone and check out the likes and comments, and think about the future – while internet is slow, it suggests some interesting possibilities for live streaming performance. Boiler Room Sikasso? Stay tuned.

DJ Sandji 100% Balani Show

DJ Sandji started djing years ago with cassette decks. He now uses a combination of CDJs, Virtual DJ, and a sampler. The sampler seems to always use the same kit – the one with the whistles and claps, which has evolved to be a signature element of Balani Show (Sandji uses Boss DR-660).

The Balani Show is an informal street/bloc party with kids games, dance contests, and acrobatic dance troupes, controlled by an MC and DJ. Although parties have waned over the years, it’s still a common occurrence, especially in the capital of Bamako during vacation.

“Balani Show” style remix – Sikasso Radio

The remix music played at Balani Show defies nomenclature – I’m still not sure what to call it, and neither are the DJs. Sandji plays a combination of Malian pop music, Coupé Décalé, Hip Hop, Kuduro, and Naija Pop. If there is any difference in the past years, it’s that the Balani Show is getting faster. Music is regularly pitched up – Kuduro can clock in at 170bpm. Most of the songs are remixed, either with the addition of drums, or cut up on the computer.

DJ Sandji recently put together a mixtape – 100% Balani Show – of songs making the rounds through the Balani Shows, mixed and cut up, and with enough whistles and handclaps to keep the neighborhood moving. Download if for free on bandcamp or grab it on limited cassette at the shop.

balani show takeover

In 2012, I traveled to Bamako to research “Balani Shows,” sound system block parties with a dancehall vibe that feature Malian electronic music. A frequent occurrence throughout residential neighborhoods (particularly during school vacations) I had stumbled across them over the years, but had never paid much attention. Internet research was a dead end, besides a few Youtube videos (though one documentary trailer seems promising). Over a few weeks in Bamako, I met with DJs, scoured the mp3 market for remixes, photographed, filmed, and even threw a few Balani Shows of my own (vimeo link).

A Balani Show is a public street party organized for a myriad of reasons: a birthday, a wedding, a baptism. The mobility means that it often happens right in front of the house. DJs install massive speakers and hundreds of chairs to encircle the “show.” Music begins in the early evening as the block fills up with hordes of seemingly parent-less children wandering about. After a pause for evening prayer, the real Balani Show begins – the little ones pushed aside to make way for the adolescents and teenagers. Dressed in loud combinations of neon hats, dark sunglasses, and colorful sneakers, they come for the spectacle and participation: dance battles, performances, comedians, party games, fashion contests, and some acrobatic, limb twisting, hyper stylized choreography. The MCs direct the action, bouncing about the improvised stage with wireless mics while the DJ cues up tracks with a laptop and Virtual DJ. Balani Shows play danceable, high energy music – Coupé Décalé, Kuduro, and Hip Hop. But most of the music is Malian. Samples of Balafons cut up over pounding electronic beats, recognizable Malian hits remixed as unofficial bootlegs, and fast paced Bambara rapping over insane djembe rhythms. For some reason, there are lots of samples of bells and whistles.

In fact, the music of the Balani Show – colloquially known as “Balani Show” or “Ambience” – hints at the origin of the party. While many individuals lay claim to the creation, the Balani Show as music style seems to have emerged around the late 90s/early 2000s. Balanis (literally “little Bala” or “little Balafon”) had long been organized in the villages, particularly in Southern Mali. These village parties were much the same in style, but instead of DJs, featured electrified Balafons. But Balafons and Balafon players were expensive. The same DJs who rented out sound systems began to offer a cheaper alternative, Balani Show sans Balafon at a fraction of the cost, playing prerecorded Balafon music from cassettes. The phenomena caught on, and soon someone introduced a pair of CD turntables. With this latest innovation, DJs had a new ability – to remix and compose their own tracks, updating Malian music and overdubbing it with the signature Coupé Décalé rhythm (check this amazing digital compilation of Balani Show remixes) Using rhythm boxes and samplers, these “Balani Show” creations began to circulate – informing a new style of electronic music, a sort of “Malian Coupé Decalé” founded in the origins of traditional Malian Balafon.

Today the “Balani Show” continues to evolve and mutate into something new. While in Bamako, I saw many CDJs gathering dust and it appeared that many if not all DJs have switched to laptops, the preferred tool for performances. The task of remixing has been handed off to an army of anonymous bedroom DJs and producers, songs loaded and distributed by cellphone and PC. Any number of these “megamixes” can be found at cellphone markets, or playing on the radio. But most interestingly, the Balani Show phenomena has spawned innumerable new musics by a generation that grew up under the sound system. These homegrown productions sample Balafons and have that distinct sound of the remix – but they are original creations, not remixes. Songs are sung in Bambara and are based on traditional rhythms. While this new music is undoubtedly modern, like the Balani Show parties it too pays homage to an ancient tradition. It reveals a different narrative of the old vs new – and suggests that maybe the best way to preserve culture is by reinventing it, keeping it modern and relevant in a faster world.


The new Balani Show Super Hits compilation includes music from over a decade of Balani Show – from early musicians like DJ Bamanan and DJ Balani to the contemporary stars like Kaba Blon and Supreme Talent Show (both whose tracks were produced by the Sidiki Diabate, son of the legendary Toumani Diabate). The vinyl available at the shop, as well as through bandcamp. It doesn’t come with liner notes or photos, but with a glossy digital low-fi jacket that lies closer to what I imagine it would look like if it were released in Bamako. If you want to play it for that distinctly Malian feel, a very loud volume is recommended.

*For more info see my “Global Ear: Bamako” piece in Wire Magazine #342