Ingrid Monson, a Harvard jazz scholar and ethnomusicologist with the lofty title of Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music, owns a collection of balafons — the West African instrument that looks like an oversized, rustic xylophone, with gourds fixed under the wooden keys to supply resonance. They come from her research trips to Mali, where the balafon has a long history as a traditional music mainstay.
Her choice of balafon, however, is one that jelis, or griots — the hereditary musician caste closely associated with Malian tradition — do not favor. Their balafon, the one of the great medieval Mande empire and its heirs, is built on a heptatonic (7-note) scale. Monson’s are of the humble pentatonic (5-note) variety, a country cousin long scorned in Mali’s cultural elite.