Marimba Music in the Scenic Rim Brisbane Queensland
Christine Leah has been playing and teaching music Since her upbringing as a young girl in the Salvation Army. Even when just a schoolgirl she appeared at the Royal Albert Hall In London as a soloist on the xylophone. After a successful career in teaching in the UK and Hong Kong she now entertains guests Zengarra with her extraordinary talent.
The Marimba Story
"Where did the Marimba originate?"
The marimba's roots are ancient, extending to primitive peoples' instincts to strike objects that produced musical tones: not only wood, but also stone and metal slabs. These practices existed in various forms in the cultures of Africa, Latin America and Asia and are all, in some sense, forerunners of the modern marimba.
The first crude beginnings of the marimba were several slabs of wood placed on sticks set over a hole in the ground which served as a resonating chamber. Later, slabs of wood were suspended over large gourds or wooden boxes which served to enhance the tone.
Sources differ on the specific area in which the marimba originated; however, the frontrunners in this debate are Africa and the highlands of Guatemala. It is interesting to note that the symbolic and functional uses of the African marimba are very much integrated into their culture. In Guatemala, the marimba is still the national instrument; no party is complete without its music.
The marimba that I play today is quite different than these original folk instruments. The development of the modern marimba in this hemisphere can be traced to the Central American marimba builders, notably Sebastian Hurtado, who developed a chromatic arrangement of the bars laid out like the piano keyboard during the 1890s. In 1880, John Calhoun Deagan founded the first U.S. company to manufacture percussion instruments, and built the first real precursor to my marimba, with metal resonators, around the 1920s. (Source: "The Mysticism of the Marimba", copyright 1977 by James L. Moore)
"Is the marimba what Lionel Hampton played in jazz?"
No. He played a vibraphone. It's a very close relative of the marimba with keys arranged the same way, like a piano keyboard, but the vibraphone's keys are made out of metal. Another difference is that the vibraphone has a pedal which can be used for sustain like the pedal on a piano. It also has a motor which can be turned on to rotate discs (one at the top of each resonator tube) which leave-open and close-off the resonators. The speed of the rotation can be regulated by the player. This gives the impression of vibrato — which is how the instrument got it's name.
"What is a xylophone?"
The xylophone is another close relative of the marimba — actually, a little bit closer relative than the vibraphone — for, like the marimba, its keys are also made of wood and it has no sustain pedal or motorized "vibrato"-discs. Iplayed one for many years escpecially in Hong Kong. However, the xylophone's range includes a full octave above the marimba's — which means it extends up to the top note of a piano.
"How do the overall ranges of the three instruments — marimba, vibraphone and xylophone — compare?"
I'll relate them to a piano keyboard: There are eight Cs on a piano; the lowest note is an A. The lowest note on a five-octave concert grand marimba is C2 (which, by the way, is also the lowest note of a cello). There are also many marimbas which don't extend quite that low. My marimba is 5.0 octaves. Most vibraphones encompass three octaves, F3 to F6. Most xylophones encompass three-and-a-half octaves, sounding F4 to C8 (although xylophone music is written one octave lower).
In some ways, you could compare the relationship of the marimba, vibraphone and xylophone to that of a cello, viola and violin.
"What is the marimba made out of?"
The keys are usually made of rosewood, much of which came from Guatemala although the very best comes from Honduras. Timber is graded up to AAA and this is very rare and in fact has almost disappeared Korogi, the makers of my marimba are apparently one of the few companies that still has some stocks of AAA rosewood . The frame of the marimba could be made out of anything (various woods or synthetics); it doesn't affect the sound in any way. Most resonator pipes are made of aluminum. On some marimbas they are made of brass (but these can be extremely heavy and difficult to move).
"What do the pipes hanging down do?"
They serve to amplify the resonance of the bar. Each tube is capped off at a particular length which will provide the longest possible resonance. The high notes only require a short amount of tubing before they are capped off. Consider a bottle of beer; the more you drink (i.e., the emptier the bottle gets), the lower the tone of the bottle is when you blow into it. When the pitch of the resonator matches that of the bar, the result is optimum resonance of the marimba bar.
The low notes require quite a long tube; on my marimba the lowest notes have a tube which almost touches the floor and this in fact determines quite a few factors in the design such as the height above ground of the keyboard. If you want to make a larger marimba IE more low notes then you have to start to make very special troops for the lower notes and in some marimbas the tube essentially goes down and curves back up all within a larger oval tube.
"What do you call the hammers or sticks you're playing with, and why are the heads different colours?"
They're called mallets. They are different colours simply as a coding system for mallets of varying hardness. In general, softer mallets are most flattering to the lowest notes on the marimba, and harder mallets are most flattering to the higher notes. Players can achieve a wide range of different tone colours by their choice of different mallets, in conjunction with the specific type of stroke they use to bring the mallets into contact with the keys.
"How do you hold two mallets in each hand?"
It's a lot like glorified chopsticks! There are several basic "grips," as they're called, or, popular methods of holding two mallets in each hand. With two mallets in each hand, it's possible to drastically alter the widths between the mallets, even very rapidly.
"How do you move the instrument around?"
In our local disabled taxi. It breaks down quite easily. The "white notes" and "black notes" of the keyboard are each strung up like huge necklaces which can just lift off and roll up. The banks of resonators can be removed. The end pieces come off and it all goes into two huge cardboard boxes
"Why do you have a five octave concert grand marimba?“
Because Mike bought it for me! To replace my 4.3 octave one. My guess would be that, all told, there could be about 1000 five-octave marimbas in the world. It was a very expensive purchase because at that size you really do need to have a very strong frame.
The marimba is one of the keyboard percussion instruments — a category which also includes the vibraphone and xylophone, as well as the glockenspiel and tubular chimes — which all fit under the larger heading "percussion instruments." These include the instruments you've seen played at the back of the orchestra: the timpani (or kettledrums), bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle and other "toys." It also includes the drum kit and many ethnic or "world" percussion instruments.