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Marimbas History

New Steel-Framed Marimba Set


"Few players of the popular marimba sets in South Africa know anything about the origin of their instruments. In the twenty years they have been in South Africa some surprising folk versions of their history have grown up. Some know that it came from Zimbabwe. Some say vaguely, "It's a traditional South African instrument". A CD write-up recently said: "Zimbabwe's marimba traditions died out at the end of the 19th century due to colonial interference". If you want to know what really happened, please read on!......."

by Andrew Tracey.

Firstly it is NOT a traditional South African instrument (except for the Venda, see below), and secondly Zimbabwe had NO marimba tradition, certainly not in the last two centuries or so. There was one early Portuguese quote which says that the "Karanga" played marimba. I discount this, because the Portuguese were on the coast, and the people with whom they came into contact there apparently called themselves 'Karanga' only because they were under the influence of, or part of the empire of Great Zimbabwe, which was Karanga-ruled. These coastal people, now called Chopi, Tswa, and Ndau/Shanga, still play marimbas to this day. But this does not mean that the Shona themselves ever played marimba (nor of course the Ndebele, the second major group in Zimbabwe, who like their Zulu ancestors are not instrumentally inclined). If any of the Shona had ever played marimba, I would certainly have expected to come across remnants of memories of it, and in particular a vocabulary connected with it.

Some of the Valley Tonga live on the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi. Before being removed from their river-side homes to make way for Lake Kariba, they once had a 4-note 'leg xylophone', with loose keys placed on the outstretched legs. They played it in the fields to make the seeds grow, they said, and probably also to keep birds and baboons away. I was there in March and this instrument only exists now in the memories of old men. In any case I would not class it with the other large and complex African marimbas.

The WORD 'marimba' is used in Zimbabwe, but only by the Njanja people around Buhera to refer not to a xylophone, but to their mbira, which is of the njari type. But there are no marimbas proper in Zimbabwe, except the occasional one brought in by someone from Zambia or Mozambique. It is also possible that the few Venda who live in the south of Zimbabwe might sometimes have played the mbila mutondo marimba, as it is known in the Soutpansberg in the Limpopo Province of South Africa where the majority of Venda live. This instrument, however, cannot have stemmed from the Shona side of the Venda ancestry but is very likely connected with the Chopi marimba tradition in Mozambique, via the Venda's neighbours, the Pedi. There are historical, family, chiefly, and linguistic connections between these three peoples. Some details on the mbila mutondo resemble similar parts of the Chopi timbila.

It is just possible, of course, that the Venda, prior to moving from Zimbabwe to the Soutpansberg during the 16th to the 18th centuries, already had their marimba. If they had also formed part of the Great Zimbabwe kingdom, this could account for the Portuguese quote mentioned. However, I think this unlikely, because they had not met the Pedi at that time, and the relationship of their marimba with the Mozambique ones seems to relate to their Pedi connection. Note, however, that the music played on the Venda mbila mutondo is clearly related to early 24-pulse levels of Shona music, as found for instance in music for the karimba, in children's songs, work songs and story songs. (I believe that the 48-pulse music of the big Shona mbiras is a later development)

The very ABSENCE of marimbas in Zimbabwe is the chief reason why this instrument was chosen, in Bulawayo in about 1960, to be developed as a new national instrument, because it had no ethnic affiliations which could lead to charges of favouritism; it could belong equally to everybody in the country. Yet, of course, it was totally African at the same time, although not played in Zimbabwe itself. The nearest marimba traditions around Zimbabwe are the silimba of the Lozi in Barotseland, western Zambia, the Venda mbila mutondo, and three in Mozambique, the valimba of the Sena, Manganja and others on the lower Zambezi, and the muhambi of the Tswa and mbila of the Chopi of the southern coastal plain.

It is usually said that the new Zimbabwe marimbas (or Zimarimbas) drew on the Lozi and Chopi traditions, but as I was there at the time and play the Chopi marimba I can tell you that there was no Chopi influence at all, neither in construction nor in playing technique. There was a certain influence from some Lozi silimba players who happened to be living in Bulawayo at the time, which left its mark in some of the standard Kwanongoma marimba pieces like "Siyamboka". But gradually over the years these pieces gradually lost their Lozi-ness and were 'Zimbabwefied'.

My side of the story of the birth of the Zimarimbas is this. It all started with the late Robert Sibson, the Bulawayo City Electrical Engineer and flautist, who later became Director of the Rhodesian Academy of Music (as then called), and built the new concert hall at the Academy which is named after him. I went to work at the Academy in late 1959 under the then Director, Hugh Fenn, and was present at the birth, so to speak. Sibson was concerned that the rich indigenous music of Zimbabwe was not being encouraged or taught anywhere in the country. He asked me to come up from Johannesburg to scout the Bulawayo townships for traditional musicians and produce teachers and teaching materials for the newly proposed Kwanongoma School of African Music, of which he was the chief moving spirit.

He had found premises very near his power station in town. The next step was long discussions we had over what should be taught and how and by whom etc. Out of these discussions arose the idea of the marimba, in that it was not 'partisan', as mentioned above, it could be designed to play both traditional and modem music, it would play in groups in African communal style, it would not be expensive, etc. The large southern Mexican and Guatemalan marimbas were one of our models. All models would have membrane buzzers in African style. They would be in four pitch ranges similar to a SATB choir, and so on. A major decision, which I actually disagreed with, as one who already played a heptatonic African marimba, was to include an extra F# key in the keyboard in line with the other notes. The purpose of this was to allow the use of two major keys, C and G, as well as several other useful modes, and of course also to assuage the feelings of the Western musicians involved that a plain 7-note scale would be somehow 'limiting'!

Sibson's second in charge at the power station was the late Nelson Jones, a practical man and humorist with an interest in music, who later also became City Electrical Engineer when Sibson became Director of the Academy. Jones was charged with designing a marimba set from scratch. I remember his first instruments very well. He had gone into the intimate mathematical details of the vibration of bars, and worked out exactly how the bottom surface of a key should be profiled in order to get all the overtones in tune. And I mean all.... his profile looked on paper like the Manhattan skyline upside down! I think he only made one of these 'ideal' keys. The result was not impressive, at least in part because the wood he chose to use was California redwood which had been imported for use inside the power station's cooling towers. Redwood doesn't sound bad, but is much too soft for a marimba, so his first models did not last long. He made about two alto-size marimbas and one bass, all with cardboard tubes for resonators on a metal frame, with the keys angled up towards the player. I remember he arrived once at the door of the first Kwanongoma saying "It's the man come to tune the marimbas!", as if it were an everyday occurrence!

Taking some practical ideas from the Lozi silimba, he went on to make more playable instruments, using mukwa / mubvamaropa / kiaat / dolf (pterocarpus angolensis ) which was a much better bet, as this is the wood used on the Lozi marimba and readily available in Zimbabwe. I returned to the International Library of African Music in Johannesburg at about this time, so the details of the subsequent development are not as well known to me. Alport Mhlanga, who now teaches marimba at Maru a Pula School, Gaborone, Botswana, was one of the early graduates of the first Kwanongoma College near the power station, and could fill in on this stage. (Kwanongoma later moved to new premises at the United College of Education on the Old Falls road, and regrettably faded out of existence in due course.) Another well-known graduate of Kwanongoma was the late Dumi Maraire, whose marimba compositions are widely played, not only in Africa but also on the U.S. west coast, where he spent many years developing Zimarimba bands.

Three other people who helped considerably in the later design were Olof Axelsson, one of the Directors of Kwanongoma,, Br. Kurt Huwiler, who also worked there and developed the recording studio, and Elliot Ndlovu, who ran the workshop at Kwanongoma for many years, even continuing after it closed as a music instruction centre. He has now retired and continues to make his marimbas at home. Axelsson, concerned to make the instruments look more African, developed a model of the Kwanongoma marimba which was based on the Tswa muhambi marimba, sitting low on the floor, with small boat-shaped keys and spherical spin-moulded aluminium resonators. Several of these sets can be seen in Zimbabwe, e.g. at the Zimbabwe College of Music, Harare. Although they were well-made and looked good, somewhat like a piece of Afro-Swedish furniture, the sound was not good, mainly because the keys were mukwa, not the superior sneezewood (umhlahlamhethu / unthathi / nzari etc, ptaeroxylon obliquum) which is essential for the small keys of the muhambi.

Br. Huwiler moved to Umtata, South Africa in the early 1980s and set up a marimba factory at Ikhwezi Lokusa School for the Catholic Church. Fr. Dave Dargie (later Prof Dargie, head of Music at Fort Hare University) set about introducing the instruments and creating new liturgical music for marimba in Catholic churches and youth clubs, at first among Xhosa speakers in the Cape Province, and later country-wide. At the beginning he and I worked out a suitable tuning for use by the Xhosa people, closely based on the two harmonic series, a whole tone apart, as used in their music. (The Zimbabwean marimba, on the other hand, was tuned at first to something resembling a mbira scale, with the semitones of a western scale enlarged and the whole tones decreased. Marimbas in Zimbabwe are now tuned to the tempered western scale.) Among the changes Dave Dargie made was to tune the marimbas in Eb, as against the C tuning used in Zimbabwe, because this is a much better general-purpose singing key. The new 'Xhosa-fied' marimba sets were first introduced into Catholic youth clubs in Cape Town, and from a small start have now spread to schools, churches and clubs almost all over the country. Many professional bands now use marimba sets. The first band to achieve renown was 'Amampondo', led by Dizu Plaatjies, in Langa, Cape Town. Many have followed since.

Br. Huwiler retired to Switzerland in 1993, and the factory was taken over by Power Marimbas in Grahamstown, which were taken over in turn by my firm African Musical Instruments cc in 1999, who continue to make full sets (now much improved, extended and diversified) on the Kwanongoma / Huwiler model. Several individuals around the country also make their own models of marimba sets.

The story of the Zimarimba is not yet finished - in fact it is still starting. A distinct South African marimba sound has already developed, even regional styles can be heard, and inventiveness and originality is the hallmark of many groups. The instrument is perfectly suited to the energy of African musicality. In the beginning, however, it caught on quite slowly which, it seems to me, relates to the general lack of instruments in our musical traditions and the corresponding emphasis on the voice. In Grahamstown, for instance, when Miki Tame first got hold of a set of marimbas, he and his friends attacked them with tremendous enthusiasm, but little idea of how to place the notes they could hear in their heads on the straight keyboard in front of them. It took Miki's group about a year of near cacophony in the tiny room in town where they rehearsed constantly and entirely on their own before they had mastered the new instrument, and began to take gigs. Miki went on to lead the music at Gold Reef City, Johannesburg, and made several world tours with their group. So the marimba is not just a musical instrument... it is also a means of self-empowerment and employment in the new South Africa. Tell that to anyone who still says that music is not important!

26 May 2004

Andrew Tracey (Prof)
African Musical Instruments cc.
P.O.BOX 95

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