Timbila - Blog - Paul Nas, the Balafon is my Passion!
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Repair of a Timbila

Dutch French

This summer, I carried out a repair of a Timbila, a sound bar instrument used by the Chopi from Mozambique.It’s bars are from Padouk-wood.



I had not heard of it or seen a copy of it before but I got the request from Konstantyn Napolov, a percussionist / conductor / performer from The Hague. He is a major promoter of modern percussion, writes music for it and has interesting gigs / performances as a solo artist and orchestra. See his super interesting website here!

He had been given the instrument by a friend and with it he further expanded his collection of percussion instruments (he sometimes uses as many as 100 instruments in a performance!). However, he too did not know what exactly it was. I asked Youssouf, my teacher in Burkina if he knew the instrument and he mentioned the Timbila. With this, I was able to search further and found more information and videos or the internet.


Keys / Soundbars


Based on photo and film I shared with Youssouf, he believed that the wood used for the sound bars was ‘Padouk’, which is widely used in Kameroun for sound bar instruments. I compared the Timbil with an instrument that I myself once received and kept as a curiosity but was similar to Konstantyn’s Timbila in terms of overall appearance and method of attaching the gourds. Surprisingly, the two turned out to be similar. This strengthened my conviction not to fundamentally alter the tuning of Konstantyn’s Timbila.

In the end, it is probably wood from the highly resonant wood of the slow-growing mwenje (sneeze) tree from Mozambique. It did put me on the trail of Padouk and later found some nice batches of it for sale (which I am now going to make my own balafons with, see Blog entry on that). Konstantyn’s wish was to keep the tuning of the instrument as original as possible and at least not fundamentally convert the tuning to our western known tunings. Therefore, in that area, I only tuned the octaves used in the instrument a little sharper. Furthermore, of course, glue residues and other dirt were removed.

Gourds / Calabashes

The gourds did have a nice job to do. Each gourd originally had another gourd attached that was placed over the measuring membrane of the large gourd. These mini gourds amplified the sound of the zoom effect applied to the large gourd by the membrane. However, some of the mini gourds had disappeared so I had some work to do with those.

Hopefully he will enjoy it even more now.


UNESCO video

National anthem of Mozambique on Timbila

Concert in the street

Recordings from TV dating 1973 – 53 minutes

From the UNESCO site: The Chopi communities live mainly in the southern part of Inhambane province in southern Mozambique and are famous for their orchestral music. Their orchestras consist of five to 30 wooden xylophones, called timbila, of different sizes and pitches. The timbila are finely crafted and tuned wooden instruments made from the highly resonant wood of the slow-growing mwenje (sneezewort) tree. A resonator made of gourds is attached under each wooden slat, tightly sealed with beeswax and tempered with the oil of the nkuso fruit, which gives the timbila its rich nasal sound and characteristic vibrations. The orchestras consist of timbila masters and apprentices of all ages, with children playing alongside their grandfathers.
Each year, several new pieces are composed and performed at weddings and other community events. The rhythms within each theme are complex, so the player’s left hand often performs a different rhythm than the right hand. Performances last about an hour and include themes for solo and orchestra, with different tempos. Closely linked to the music are special timbila dances performed by two to 12 dancers in front of the orchestra. Each timbila performance includes the solemn mzeno song, performed by dancers, while the musicians play softly and slowly. These lyrics, full of humour and sarcasm, reflect contemporary social issues and serve to chronicle events in the community.
Most experienced timbila performers are elderly. Although several timbila masters have started training young musicians and have included girls in their orchestras and dance groups, young people are increasingly losing touch with this cultural heritage. Moreover, deforestation has led to the scarcity of the wood needed to produce the special sonority of timbila instruments.

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