Marimbas were first played in Africa hundreds of years ago. They spread to South America in the sixteenth century.
This marimba comes from Zimbabwe where music is associated with almost all kinds of activities. There is music for hunting, drinking, work and religious festivals. Music accompanies important life events such as birth, death, coming of age ceremonies and weddings. And it features in African legends, where story-telling is punctuated by musical choruses, and the audience sing along.
The marimba can be played by itself, alongside several other marimbas, or as part of a group of different instruments. The player sometimes sings too. The marimba can accompany the flute or drum or other traditional instruments in Zimbabwe, like the mbira and the mujeje. The mbira is a cute plinky-plonky instrument known as a thumb-piano. Mujeje are stone bells made from smooth granite that give a bell-like tone when they are struck.
The marimba is classed as a keyboard percussion instrument, like the vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel and tubular chimes. The player strikes the keys with a mallet. Players usually play with two mallets, one in each hand, which means that they can strike more notes and play more complicated rhythms and tunes. Some players even use four mallets, held like chopsticks. The type of mallet used can also affect the sound of the marimba. In general, soft mallets are good for sounding the lowest notes on the marimba, and harder mallets give a clear sound on the higher notes. Players can make a wide range of different tones by their choice mallet and the type of stroke they use to bring the mallets into contact with the keys.
Recently, traditional marimba music has spread to Europe and North America. World music has become popular in the last twenty years, and African performers have played on radio and television programmes and at festivals and concerts. There is a growing interest in the instruments and some Western musicians now play them.
African marimbas are traditionally made from hardwoods like the Shea Butter tree. Wood is cut from the dead tree and dried over fires to remove any oils. The dried planks are then cut into keys with a short-handled axe and wood is removed from the underside of each key with a sharp knife. This is done to fine-tune the keys so that each makes a particular note when struck. If the note is flat, wood is cut from the middle, and if it is sharp, wood is cut from the ends. Gourds are placed below the keys. Beaters are usually made from wood with rubber ends made from recycled tyres.
There are different types of marimba. Modern marimbas have tubes below each key instead of gourds. Some marimbas are made of hardwoods such as rosewood and mahogany, while some are manufactured in Europe and America using steel or aluminium. They can also vary in size, up to five feet long with 18 notes or more. Longer marimbas stand about two or three feet off the ground so that the musicians can stand up to play and reach the notes on either end easily.