Photo courtesy of Paul Julien collection in 1932

The Sossobala

From a musical tool of oppression, to a musical tool of cultural healing, symbol of unity and freedom.
By: 
Siafa K. Ballah

A sacred symbol of freedom and identity of the Mande community, the Sossobala is a wooden xylophone or balafon, that is being played on occasions such as weddings, child naming ceremonies and festivals.

The African balafon is the traditional xylophone of the Mande people in West Africa. It is about 1.5 meters in length, made of 20 slats that are carefully cut into different lengths under each of which are several small calabashes .The original name of the percussion instrument is bala, while the term "balafon" actually mean "playing the bala instrument".  Every Mande balafon that exists today originates from one particular instrument, the Sossobala.

Ancient history tells us that in the early 13th century after the fall of the Ghana Empire, the Susu Empire briefly survived under the sorcerer and tyrannical King Soumaoro Kante. The Susu people live in the area of modern Guinea, and are a subgroup of the Mande ethnic group in West Africa.

After bargaining with Jinna Maghan, the king of the jinns (supernatural spirits), Soumaoro received their sacred and wooden xylophone, an instrument with supernatural power.  King Soumaoro used the Sossobala as an oracle. Through it he would gain information about the future, which gave him an advantage in war and battles. The Sossobala made the king unbeatable while and he kept its power selfishly. Nobody else was allowed to touch the sacred wooden instrument.

One day the smart jeli (called griot or praise singer), Balafaseke Kouyaté, who was a jeli in the service of a Malinke man called Sundiata Keita, (the Malinke are another subgroup of the Mande ethnic group) snuck into the Susu king's palace. He was immediately drawn to the Sossobala and started playing it. King Soumaoro, with his supernatural connection to the Sossobala, instantly felt that his instrument had been touched and hurryiedly went back to check.

 Being caught in the act, the jeli Balafaseke Kouyaté quickly improvised a praise song to the Susu king.  King Soumaoro Kante was so deeply impressed by Balafaseke's playing and also pleased about the praises he received that, instead of punishing the sneaking man, he spared his life and kept him in his service.

The Foundation of the Mande Empire of course, by being able to play the Sossobala, the griot also gained control over the supernatural powers of the Susu king. The same griot was still in the service of another increasingly powerful man: Sundiata Keita. No wonder Sundiata Keita was able to defeat the Susu king with his Mande army in AD 1236!  

As a result, the raise of the great Mali Empire was able to unify all Mande people. Sundiata Keita took the Sossobala as a war trophy and Balafaseke Kouyaté continued serving him as his personal jeli. Every existing African balafon today has its origin in Sundiata’s epic victory.

The Sossobala was later transformed from being a tool of oppression in the hands of a tyrant, to a tool of cultural healing in the hands of Sundiata Keita and his griot. From that time up until now, the traditional instrument has become a symbol of unity and freedom of the Mande peoples.

The original Sossobala had been preserved by the Kouyaté family even when the Mande Empire bean falling apart. During the difficult colonial times, the original Sossobala was relocated at a museum in the Republic of France. The over 800-years-old instrument was brought back to its ancestors land in 2002 and is now a national treasure in Guinea and it still reminds the Mande of their glorious past. Even today, the African balafon tradition continues to play an important part in preserving the cultural identity of the Mande peoples in West Africa.

The original Sossobala is preserved in a round mud hut with other sacred and historical objects in the village of Nyagassola in northern Guinea, an area occupied by the Dökala family. The Kouyaté families are also griots of Nyagassola. The Balatigui, who is a patriarch of the Dökala family, is the guardian of the instrument.

My research over the years tells me that the Sossobala is used by nine countries in West Africa namely, Guinea, Senegal, Cote D`voire, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Mali, Bourkina Faso and Liberia. In 2002, the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) declared the Sossobala as the world’s tangible heritage.

The Mandingo (a subset of the Mande ethnic group) is one of the tribes in Liberia that is preserving the identity of the Sossobala.  When you attend most of their ceremonies, the jeli or griots (praise singers) use the Sossobala to play a unifying role amongst their people. We as a people belong to a community and every community has a cultural identity that can unify us as one people from one root.

Liberian Observer

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