In perfect harmony with the relaxed tropical location, its smooth, subtle rhythm accompanies the palm trees swaying above it. Across town its toe-tapping beat keeps time with the pace of the village square. In San Jose’s concert hall, it performs a classical composition alongside its peers in a symphony orchestra. Which instrument boasts such versatility? It is the marimba–“wood that sings”!
The first time I saw one was in the back of a pickup truck with five guys holding on to it. I was thinking what the heck is that thing. I was driving to Sardinal, a traditional Costa Rica town just 7 miles from the beaches of Playa Hermosa, to play a round of golf at Vista Ridge Golf and Country Club.
So, I followed the truck for a bit as I was really curious as to what was that strange looking thing. When it arrived at the town square, I watched six guys remove it from the truck and move it towards the center of the park. Within minutes the most beautiful sound started coming from it as one gentleman was tapping away on it with long sticks that looked like it had cotton balls on it. With out really knowing what it was I had to do some research.
The marimba is a type of xylophone and a member of the family of percussion instruments. What determines the marimba’s characteristic sound? The materials used in construction, the size and shape of the keys or bars, the resonators, the choice of mallets, and the style of the musician.
The keyboard consists of graduated wooden slats called “bars” connected by a tight, thin cord and suspended above a wooden or metal frame. Rosewood, renowned for its resonant quality, is the wood of choice for the bars. While the number of bars varies from 32 to 78, the most popular marimbas have a 4 1/2- to 5-octave range including both diatonic and chromatic scales (corresponding to the white and black keys of a piano, respectively). To assign a specific note to a bar, a hollow is carved out of its underside. By gradually enlarging this concave cavity and adjusting the length of the bar, the desired note is attained. The deeper the hollow, the lower the note; the shorter the bar, the higher the note. This tuning process can be custom-tailored to the preferences of the musician/owner.
Suspended vertically below each bar is a tube called a resonator, which acts as an amplifier. In traditional marimbas they are made of cedar or cypress, chosen for its flexibility and natural resistance to insects. These wooden resonators have a little hole at the lower end called a “navel”, the perimeter of which is coated with wax and then covered by a tissue-thin membrane of dried pig intestine. This membrane vibrates when the note is struck and improves resonance.
The wood bars “sing” when struck by the mallets. To make a traditional rubber-tipped mallet, sap from a rubber tree is smeared on a flat surface as if it were thick paint and left to dry in the sun. The rubber is then cut into thin strips and wound around a core attached to the end of a wooden shaft. Mallet heads can also be made of yarn or cord. By adjusting the core and winding process, a large variety of timbres are possible. Generally, the softer mallet heads are used for the lower tones and the harder heads hit the high notes.
Marimba players–called “marimbistas” in Spanish–perform alone or in groups of two or three. Using multiple mallets, each musician strikes the notes that form the chords of the melody, harmony or bass. It is fascinating to watch the speeding mallets of the marimbistas–their movements are a blur, like the beating wings of a hummingbird.
A wide range of musical styles can be played on the marimba, from classical to popular. Many countries have their own favorite rhythms, such as Costa Rica’s “tambito”. On some occasions the marimba performs as a solo instrument; other times it is joined by other marimbas of varying sizes. More often than not, the marimba is accompanied by guitars, drums and other instruments. Commonly these marimba bands are family-based groups who keep the tradition alive from one generation to the next.
It is difficult to pinpoint the birthplace of the marimba. While many countries have native xylophone-type instruments, some believe the primitive marimba was born in South Africa where Zulu mythology tells of a goddess named “Marimba” who made an instrument by hanging gourds below wooden bars. It is believed African slaves recreated the design upon arrival in Latin America during the 16th and 17th centuries.
In Costa Rica, traditional marimba makers are sometimes called “marimberos.” Theirs is an empirical knowledge, since there are no schools here that teach the skill. In small shops next to their homes, artisans often work alone and at an unhurried pace, at times taking three months or more to build a single marimba.
Would you like to buy one? Due to the high price of rosewood and the labor-intensive craftsmanship, the cost of a marimba can be prohibitive, ranging from $1,800 to $15,000–as much as the cost of a piano. But don’t despair! A well-made and maintained marimba will not wear out, so a used one may be as good as a new one–and more affordable, too!
From the village square to the concert hall, the almost music box-like sound of the marimba always draws a crowd. Mellow and at the same time energetic, it is impossible to resist the music of the versatile marimba–“wood that sings.”