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It’s the end of week three. My last weekend to enjoy. The trip is scarily close to the end now. I’m determined to fill my weekend with fun stuff to make the most of my last bit of free time. Last night I went on a boat trip to Vieux Lyon, went for a few drinks and wondered around taking pictures of street art. Apparently there was a lot more but they have been cleaned away. I’m off to another park today and tomorrow I’ll be meeting another balafon player, who contacted me after reading this blog, who is just half an hour away from Lyon. I’m looking forward to playing in the park in the sun and talking about our experiences as leaners of this amazing music. Finally it has warmed up and I’ve sat outside and enjoyed a warm evening. I even managed to wear shorts this week.

The bulk of all the learning is coming to an end now. I’ve studied ten rhythms, each with at least three accompaniments and melodic arrangements for the songs. My wrists are no longer hurting at all which is big step forward. I am tired still and my body aches a bit but not as much. Sory keeps laughing at how much I have to stretch my arms, back, shoulders and chest all day. For him its nothing. He is so relaxed at looks like he could play continuously for an hour without exerting himself at all. I have been scoring endlessly everyday and have so much music written down now. Very soon I’ll turn the scribblings of a mad man in to something legible and presentable!

Although there has been less focus on technique, lessons have still been learnt through the various parts I’ve been playing. As demonstrated in the video below I’ve been informed how there are many techniques for the balafon.There is no one size fits all. Through playing different material I’m beginning to piece the puzzle together and realise which technique is used where and why.

I’ve discussed one of them quite a lot so far in these blogs and vlogs. This is where all four fingers and thumb grip in a fixed but relaxed manner. There should be no movement of the beater in the hand here. The forearms are used to move the wrists up and down so there is no bounce or rebound. The wrist lifts the beater up after striking the note. This technique, let’s call it the primary grip, is mainly used for playing accompaniments with lots of alternate handing. There is no need for the stick to bounce as there is enough space between one note and the next. Generally the patterns are built out of chords so there aren’t many descending or ascending sequences of consecutive notes.

The next we’ll call the open handed grip. With this technique only the thumb and first finger grip the beater, though only loosely. Fingers two, three and four let go. The reason being so that the beater can bounce around in the players hand and the three loose fingers can be used to rapidly tap the underside of the beater to aid that bounce. It’s almost like pulling a trigger. Needless to say this for when a single note is played at least two or three times in rapid succession. And also for ascending or descending in quick succession. This would be impossible to achieve using the primary grip as the forearm can not contract and relax as quick as the fingers can tap the beater.

The third technique we’ll call the three finger grip. This refers to fingers two, three and four. With this technique the first finger and thumb open a little bit to allow some movement of the beater in the hand yet, importantly, not anywhere near as much as the open handed technique. It’s like breathing space for the beater. The forearm lifts the wrist up and on its way up this breathing space allows it to reach that little bit higher which enables more speed and power yet the control of three fingers also offers accuracy and precision. From what I can tell this technique has numerous applications. One example is playing a melody line using parallel octave doubles which moves up and down around one note. Think of the notes E-D-E-F-E for example, played quickly in octave doubles. The wrist cannot move fast enough to use the primary grip and the open handed grip wouldn’t give the player enough precision to move up and down the scale in parallel at speed.

I also demonstrate in the video how when playing a fast ascending or descending roll, the beaters cannot be set apart (in the direction parallel with the slats. Ie- one hand should not be further away than the other from the body) but just have to move out of the way fast enough for the next note to be played without the beaters hitting each other. This is very difficult and will take a lot of practise. Sory has the ability to play a trill using two notes, the right hand playing the low note and the left playing the high note of the pair. The speed he can achieve doing this is insane. You have to come from the side to manage this but it feels quite unnatural so far.

Next week the plan is to revise all the material learnt so far on Monday which will clear up any potential misunderstanding or correct mistakes in my notation. On Tuesday I have requested to learn the words for all the songs for the pieces I have studied. I’m really hoping for some variations and decorations in the vocal melody to make my/our renditions more authentic. I know Sory is an excellent singer but I think he’s a bit shy with his voice. Whenever he has sung it has been really quiet. On Wednesday I will make sure I have a clean recording of every single thing including transitions between parts, melodies with accompaniments and entering parts with a signal. In the afternoon I will be conducting an interview with Sory to ask all the questions I have about the instrument, the music, the culture, the history and more… If there is anything you think would be a good question please add it to the comments and I’ll try and include it. This is an incredible change to learn a lot so I want to get it right, I’ve been preparing a list of questions the whole time I’ve been here that I will whittle down beforehand. We’ll also play a piece together at the end and a lady I’ve met here has kindly offered to translate so the results will be instantaneous and make a really nice video. Finally on Thursday and Friday the Afromundo centre is unavailable so we will spend two days working on a balafon giving me a complete and thorough understanding of how to construct the instrument. I’m really excited about this and can’t wait to have the skills to work on my own balafon at home. Finally next weekend Sory has a gig where he is the main act… What a finale! A chance to see him perform properly as the star of a show and celebrate the end a fantastic trip. I’ll make sure to get a video for the last post!

A bientôt!