While length of key is one determinant of pitch, most "African xylophone" (marimba, balafon, etc.) keys are also significantly thinned in the middle to lower their pitch.
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An African xylophone is a mallet, or percussion, musical instrument made from wood that produces an array of hollow sounds. Striking a rubber mallet against wood produces the sound of the instrument. The size and number of keys on the xylophone vary depending upon the African country that produces it. Typically, the males in African villages play the instrument even though there are no gender restrictions. The instrument may have only one or multiple players, and it is used for a variety of tribal dances or rituals.
Early versions of the African xylophone were made by stringing wood and gourds together. Villagers roasted wood and shaped individual bars to achieve the desired tone. After they shaped the wood, they carefully chose gourds, or resonators, to accompany the size of the wooden bars and achieve the necessary key. They collected the wasp wax and used it to adjust the key tone of the instrument at the mouth of the resonator. Villagers collected the rubbery leaves from wild, creeping plants, and used them to make the mallets used for striking the wood.
The term xylophone means “wooden sound,” and the African xylophone is named for the sound it produces. The length of the wooden bars determines the pitch with longer bars producing lower tones and shorter bars producing higher tones. The mallets used to play the xylophone also affect the sound the instrument produces. Softer mallets produce a round timbre and a gentle sound while harder mallets produce a bright, shrill timbre.
The African xylophone has an obscure history dating back to ancient periods. Certain scholars assert that ancient, African and Asian societies invented versions of the xylophone without the influence of the other. Evidence supports that the xylophone originated in Southeast Asia. In 500 A.D., Asian peoples entered Africa, bringing the xylophone with them. Many scholars are likely to believe the second version due to the similarities between the East Asian xylophone and the African xylophone.
African villagers used the xylophone for various ceremonial purposes. Often, villagers used the xylophone in large orchestras or ensembles consisting of other wooden and gourd instruments. They played the instrument at tribal dances to reenact musically historical events or to pass along tribal tales. They also used the xylophone on celebratory occasions, such as weddings, religious ceremonies, or war dances. In funerals or other mournful events, one person plays the xylophone using the softer tones of the instrument to convey sadness.
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