In addition to my non-performance music major, I graduated from Boston University with a minor in art history. (I’m fond of bragging about my prowess in selecting the most worthless major/minor combination possible.) As part of the requirements for my chosen minor, I took a class called Arts of Africa (CAS AH 215). Prof. Pilar Quezzaire-Belle gave us a choice for our final project: we could write a paper on some artifact or artwork we’d discussed earlier in the semester or build/sculpt/craft an object that (roughly) approximated something we’d seen over the course of the semester. Inspired by my friend Nate (who had taken the class several years prior and built a djembe for his final project), I took it upon myself to build a xylophone/marimba.
I found a book in the library that had pretty specific directions for building a Mandinka balafon–a Malian idiophone with equal-tempered heptatonic tuning. (The Mandinka Balafon: An Introduction with Notation for Teaching by Lynne Jessup.) Jessup listed padouk as one of the wood types commonly used for building such an instrument and a quick Google revealed that an exotic hardwood lumber yard in Jersey had some in stock. We were headed to Uncle Bill’s house for Thanksgiving that fall and I convinced my parents to make a stop so I could pick up some wood.
Uncle Bill, master carpenter that he is, rough cut the planks to the desired lengths and I tuned them when I got back to Allston. (This was no small feat as padouk is a very hard hardwood. I wore out two of the blades on my Swiss army knife and developed several severe blisters along the way.) I constructed the frame out of bamboo poached from a Port Jefferson lawn and the (pretty-much-non-functioning) resonating gourds were provided by Terhune Orchards.
Here it is in all its glory:
The downside to all of this was that Prof. Quezzaire-Belle was impressed and asked me to play the thing in front of the whole class. I practiced a couple of the melodies that Jessup provided in the back of the book:
By the sound of this video, I think my instrument and performance turned out pretty good: