Can Xylophones ‘Talk’? Yes, in Africa, and Soon, at the Hop

Mamadou Diabate’s music is also speech, says linguist Laura McPherson.

This fall, on Wednesday afternoons, the syncopated rhythms of balafons—African xylophone-like instruments—have been spilling out of Faulkner Recital Hall in the Hopkins Center for the Arts. It’s a call-and-response improvisation. In a lilting voice, Mamadou Diabate, one of Burkina Faso’s most illustrious musicians, recites a traditional lyric, and beginning players—students and a few faculty— try to find those notes on their balafons, creating a tune that sounds a lot like what they have just heard Diabate say.

In this way, the performers are doing more than adding melody to lyrics. They are directly translating speech into song.