Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Marimba Goes Mainstream

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Marimba Goes Mainstream

Article excerpt

The resonant sound it produces seems to vibrate through the ages, putting the listener immediately in touch with peoples, times and places far removed from today's world. In its singular majesty, the marimba is an organic ink between cultures that stretch from the Orient and Africa to the New World. Yet this lion of the kingdom of musical instruments remains cloaked in unfortunate stereotypes, neither fully appreciated nor properly utilized, its rich potential largely untapped.

In the Western Hemisphere, the instrument is immediately associated with an important music tradition that extends from central Mexico to the northern part of South America. Although Guatemala and neighboring states in southern Mexico utilize the marimba the most extensively, talented players can be found throughout Central America and even in Ecuador, where descendents of African slaves fashion small marimba-like instruments out of pambil wood and cana de guadua.

As a member of the percussion family of instruments, the marimba shares some characteristics with drums, bells, scrapers and other devices struck by hand, stick or mallet to produce the desired sound. Where the marimba differs is in the sophistication of its construction and the skill required to play it well. Like its cousins, the metal vibraphone and the higher-pitched xylophone, the marimba's "keyboard" resembles that of the piano, the difference being that the rows of tuned wooden bars are played by striking them with a mallet. In the hands of a well-trained musician, the marimba is capable of rendering flurries of notes that can rival the articulations of a concert pianist.

Just where this ancient instrument was born is a matter of substantial and ongoing debate. The most widely accepted explanation of the marimba's origins is that it arrived in a very humble form with boatloads of West African slaves, and was modified and refined over several hundred years by the European and Mestizo inhabitants of Mexico and Central America. The presence of the marimba in West and Central Africa is well-documented, and early Spanish historians noted the arrival of a small marimba played with the thumbs when slave galleons docked in Havana en route to the continent. The instrument also evolved to a very sophisticated level in parts of Southeast Asia, and some musicologists maintain it spread from there via early trade routes to Africa.

A fascinating alternative theory is that the marimba was independently developed by the ancient Maya in the highlands of Guatemala. Several prominent Guatemalan academics offer an intriguing chain of linguistic and physical evidence that points to the existence of an instrument resembling the marimba long before the Spanish arrived and began to introduce African slaves into the region.

Regardless of its precise origin, the heart of contemporary marimba country is in the Chiapas highlands in southern Mexico, where a common heritage binds neighboring regions in western Guatemala and three Mexican states into a culturally unified whole. Here, craftsman employ time-honed skills to make instruments of ageless beauty, embodied with qualities that will awaken yet another generation of listeners to the magical qualities of the marimba.

The capital of Chiapas state, Tuxtla Gutierrez, and the nearby town of Chiapa de Corzo today produce most of the marimbas made in Mexico. On a narrow side street in Tuxtla, one of Mexico's premier marimba makers attends to his daily ritual of cutting, shaving, sanding and fitting, with occasional forays into composing. Oscar Ventura Cruz is a rarity--a skilled craftsman who also plays, composes and arranges for the instrument. With partner Andres Lopez, Cruz takes seasoned wood from the hormiguillo tree and fashions the amber material into the various components that will be assembled into instruments of traditional quality. The pair may spend up to four months making a five-and-a-half octave marimba. …

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