I first heard a marimba band in about 1980 at the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel. I was an instant convert to the marimba’s warm, woody sounds as they wafted through the trees and the damp air. In this iconic place, it would have been easy to presume that these marimbas had a long history in the region. Yet the marimba ensembles, comprising different sized instruments that take different musical roles, like ‘soprano, tenor, and bass, were developed in Bulawayo in the early 1960s at Kwanongoma College (read Andrew Tracey’s account here). Inspired by several African xylophone traditions, they were infused with the logic of choral music’s different parts.
Nothing can quite compare to the explosion of interest in marimbas in South African schools in the last 25 years. The news has spread fast as schools have figured out what an amazing tool they are for musical learning, as well as team building, morale boosting, or indeed, for marketing. I believe that there are good reasons for this, and most of them reflect the principles of music making in sub Saharan Africa.
Marimbas are accessible: Gross motor, rather than fine motor skills are used to play marimbas. So budding musicians can play a song successfully within an hour. Compare that to the length of time violinists need to build enough skill to play in a group. Marimba music is quick to learn because the parts are simple and can be learned by ear. Most often, marimba bands learn without music notation. Together, the simple marimba parts combined result in something more than the sum of the parts.
Marimbas are inclusive: Accessibility means that anyone can play – learners of all ages and abilities can learn simple parts and play together with others. In my experience, a brand-new group can be playing a tune together within a 40 minute lesson. Parts can be simplified when beginners are struggling, and quick learners can take on the more difficult parts. Playing together like this really levels the playing field in a way that seldom happens in schooling. How many adults regret not learning to play an instrument, or worse, have dark memories of unhappy music lessons that left them convinced of their lack of ability? These feelings of inadequacy can be established very early in life, and it has been immensely satisfying as a marimba teacher to watch learners go from ‘I can’t do music,’ to – ‘Hey, I can do this!’
Marimbas are communal: Part of the power of playing marimbas is that it is a social thing. You learn together, not alone in a practice room while your friends are out having fun. We know that social learning is highly motivating, and nowhere is this more true than in the music room. Learning music in a social context is highly effective, especially where fun is the operative word.
Marimbas are empowering: Because they are accessible, inclusive and communal, the result is a huge amount of fun. Kids who have never thought of themselves as musical find themselves playing together with their peers, others who struggle socially, with their academics, or on the sports field might find they learn music fast and can help others. The marimba band is a perfect place for learners to work out their favourite songs and to teach each other, develop leadership skills, and find a place of belonging.
Marimbas are cool: They are percussive instruments that are at their best playing rhythmic music with a strong beat. The prominent beats of pop music adapt perfectly to marimbas and this is great because school goers are far more motivated to learn music that they listen to every day. Marimbas’ natural volume means they are fantastic for performances. Their sound easily fills a big hall, or projects in an outside space. That is one of the reasons so many schools have bands that frequently perform both within the school and outside it. After all, what marketing department can resist happy children playing a groovy tune?
Marimba are educative: Absolutely essential because education is at the core of what we do in schools. The educational potential of marimbas includes all of the above, but they also lend themselves to sound musical pedagogy. They are a good alternative to traditional classroom instruments like Orff Xylophones as their gutsy sound gives positive feedback to the players and students feel like they are playing ‘real’ music, not ‘school’ music. The simple parts that beginners can manage provide a starting point from which learners can go on to playing fully chromatic instruments. Marimbas are great for coordination, crossing the mid-line, developing memory, aural skills. They also encourage cooperation because band members must learn to give others space, wait their turn and understand what it means to be in a team. They provide a space for special needs students to flourish as well as an opportunity for the high fliers to shine.
Marimbas are transformational: All these features form the fundamentals of African musicking which focuses on inclusive, communal playing of beat-driven music. Because the instruments lend themselves to a musical philosophy that is rooted in Africa, they can be seen as an ideal way to diversify schools’ cultural programmes. First prize is to have enough instruments (and an appropriate venue) to use for general Creative Arts classes. However, a set of three of four instruments is a good starting point to augment classroom work or get an extra curricular band up and running. An investment in a set of marimbas is an investment in scores of pupils: because different learners can play the instruments in the course of the week and all benefit from them. It is not a matter of each learner needing an exclusive, and often expensive, instrument on which to practice.
So what are you waiting for? If you have a marimba set – get out and play! If you don’t, call AMI immediately to chat about what will work best for your school, church, or club.