21 August 2007

Zimfest 101: Marimba

Zimfest 2007, the Zimbabwean Music Festival, is just around the corner, and the excitement in town is getting tangible. So SoundRoots will focus on a few aspects of Zimbabwean music and culture this week to get you in the mood.

I'm no Zimbabwe expert; I've never visited that country (and probably won't until the political and economic situation has stabilized a bit). So take everything here with a grain of salt and feel free to dispute, praise, or elaborate by leaving comments.

Two particular instruments seem to define Zimbabwean music. Tomorrow we'll talk about the mbira. Today, the more secular instrument marimba takes center stage.

Michael Sibanda - marimba player from ZimbabweThe marimba has cousins throughout the world: xylaphone, vibraphone, the West African balafon, even the Basque txalaparta. All consist of solid keys (slats of wood or metal) that are struck to create sound. The marimba traditional had gourds placed under each key as resonators; today it's more common to see metal or PVC pipes used as resonators.

Its origins are somewhat obscure, though marimba player/teacher Michael Sibanda (pictured) said in an interview on last week's Spin The Globe that the instrument is not traditional to Zimbabwe, but rather originated in Mozambique. The Kwanongoma College of Music borrowed ideas from traditional instruments to develop the Kwanongoma marimba as a way to teach music to school children. The instrument is kid-durable, and an F# was added so that the instrument more easily accomodated both traditional and western music.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps the biggest influence in popularizing the marimba was a man named Dumisani Maraire, commonly called "Dumi." Dumi taught and performed Shona marimba music, nyunga nyunga mbira, singing, drumming, and dance at the University of Washington in Seattle from 1968 to 1972, and helped form and teach various Zimbabwean musical ensembles throughout North America up until 1990. He passed on in 1999 in Zimbabwe.

tales of the marimba cdYou'll frequently hear marimbas played in an ensemble, with a variety of different sized instruments, often accompanied by the seed-pod shakers called hosho. Zimfest features a great many marimba players and ensembles, many of whom play free afternoon concerts in addition to the paid workshops and evening performances. (see schedule)

This marimba song comes from a Johannesburg-based group that frequently performs at markets and festivals. In this song, you can also hear the sound of the kudu, a large antelope horn.

[mp3] Akwaaba: Sweet Lovey
from the album Tales of the Marimba (Sheer Sound, 2003)

For more on Zimfest, visit www.zimfest.org

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