the marimba (mar-im-ba)

The Marimba belongs to a family of instruments that includes Xylophones. As an instrument, Marimba has quite a facinating and international history - appearing in varied but similar forms in many cultures and countries.

The style of Marimba we play is has origins primarily in Zimbabwe. While most of our songs are contemporary compositions, some of the music we play was originally composed and played on Mbira (See "Mbira" below) - an instrument dating back several centuries with the Shona of Zimbabwe. This music has only recently been transcribed (circa 1960's) to the Marimba.

Quite often when we play people come from blocks around to find out "What's making that sound?" In describing the sound of Marimba's, people offer up a range of comparisons from woodwinds to pipe organs. We're surprised how far it carries. Some listers are quite surprised to find that a sound that big comes from wooden keys. It's best an outdoors/large space instrument.

Needless to say, the sound is unique... When we play, people are often eager to share their thoughts and even more eager to try. Listeners often comment on the joy and energy they hear and feel from the sounds. For some the music soothes and for others it energizes.

Alport Mhlanga played a significant role in the revival and development of the Marimba in Zimbabwe - bringing it back from near extinction in the early 1960's. Many of his students have gone on to compose and share the music around the world. He currently resides and teaches in Botswana, South Africa. Nyamamusango was greatly honoured to have met and worked with Alport on his 2002 visit to Ontario and the East coast of the USA with the Map Marimba Band.

Dumisani Maraire (A student of Alport's) was among the first to bring this music to the West Coast of Canada and the USA from Zimbabwe over 12 years ago. Many others have come and shared since then.

We are thankful for their gifts.

Dumi and Dean Samuel (Marimba Muzuva) @ Zimfest 1999

Marimbas have between two and three octaves of wooden keys, sometimes arranged in simple scales (e.g. piano white keys only) or fully chromatic scales (e.g. piano white and black keys). The fully chromatic Marimbas are more common in South America and on concert marimbas. Marimbas belone to the same family of intruments as xylophones and vibraphones. Our Soprano and Tenor Marimbas have 2 complete C-C-C scales with an extra F# in each scale. The ALto and Baritone and Bass all have between 1-2 octaves - stretching higher (Alto) or lower (Baritone, Bass) as per the instrument. The instuments are approx 4-5ft in length and about 3ft tall.

The keys are made from three types of wood: padauk (soprano), wenge (tenors) and mahogany (baritone and bass). Other woods have used for the keys include Red Cedar and Purple Heart. Our Marimbas were built by one of our members - Tim. White ash is used for the frame. Each key is cut and tuned by grinding a groove in the underside.

The resonator pipes are made from ordinary PVC drain pipes fitted with wooden plugs and plastic buzzers for tuning and effect.

mbira (em-beer-ah)

Most of our members play Mbira as well as Marimba. One of our members Dan, plays regularily with the Toronto Mbira Sessions - a group of 5-6 players.

Mbira Dzavadzimu ("Mbira of the Ancestors") dates back many centuries with the Shona of Zimbabwe. Though traditionally used in ceremony, Mbira have become part of popular culture. The term "thumb piano" is often used to describe these types of intruments. Though not an entirely accurate term, it's more familiar.

The Mbira consists of a set of metal keys fitted to a wooden soundboard. The keys can be made from iron, copper, steel or brass. Mbira most commonly consist of three rows of metal keys (22-28 in total), attached to a rectangular soundboard made of wood usually Muqwa. You will often see metal beads, pebbles, shells or even bottle caps attached to the Mbira to produce a rattling or buzzing sound. The Mbira is played by plucking the keys with your thumbs and right forefinger.

The sound of Mbiras are often compared to the sounds of a waterfall. The rhythms are quite often rolling and hypnotic. When several instruments play together muti-faceted patterns are created.

Every Mbira is unique as per the design of the maker - the may choose to build with thicker, flatter, rounder, ridged or wider keys. In addition, individual builders may choose to tune their Mbira a certain way - either by pitch or key set-up. Some Mbiras tuned to play specific songs. Each Mbira offers the creative player almost infinite variations and possiblities. The Mbiras we play were built by Gift Rushambwa and Phillimon Tirikoti of Zimbabwe and Leonard Nicoll of British Columbia

As with the Marimba, variations of this instument exist all over Africa and Asia where corn stems, wooden strips or pieces of bamboo are used instead of metal keys. Other names for this type of intrument include kalimba and Ilimba.

Mbira are usually played mounted inside a Deze - a calabash resonator (calabash is a type of gourd common all across Africa). In recent years more durable (and lighter) fibreglass resonators have become popular. The outside edge of the Deze is often decorated with cowrie shells or more commonly bottlecaps. The bottle caps give a buzzing effect and the caps from Zimbabwe are also quite interesting to look at - a glipse of another culture's method of refereshment ("spirited" and otherwise).

A significant figure in Mbira playing is Stella Chiweshe who has been very active not only in bringing the Mbira back to the people of Zimbabwe (jsut over 35 years ago the playing was illegal and punishable by prison) but also in literally putting this intrument in to the hands of women. Stella is held with high regard and is nicknamed "Ambuya Chinyakare" (Grandmother of Traditional Music).

The calabash in it's many shapes and sizes is used both musically and practically throughout Africa and Asia. The gourd ranges in usage from music (as resonator or percussive instrument) to food storage and eating to water gathering - very versatile! There are a few calabash/gourd growers in North America -who grow for the musical and decorative industries. The best (thickest shells) come from Africa.

hosho (hoe-show)

Hosho are gourd shakers made from the Maranka plant and filled with Hota seeds (from a variety of Lily called the Hope Lily). Each hosho is uniquely shaped ranging from smooth curves to horn-like points and ridges. The seeds used to fill the Hosho are absolutely rock hard (one variety of the seed was used as shot for the "Blunderbuss rifle of days gone by) The Hota grows wildly in Zimbabwe. Some US and Canadian Westcoasters have been successful in growing both Hosho and Hota.

The Hosho are surprisingly loud for their size and are important for keeping the pulse of the music. They appear both durable (they take quite a shaking) and fragile (they are at the least, dried gourds) at the same time. A hosho player watches and treats their wares very carefully and may be very reluctant in sharing with others. This shouldn't be taken personally - hosho are hard to come by in Toronto. We've had to do a few epoxy repairs over the years.

Someone once joked the reason the music moved from Mbira to the much louder and larger marimba was to compete with the volume of the Hosho.

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All content copyright L. Hurley 1999-2005