The heartbeat of tradition
At African Musical Instruments, we make music happen. AMI was founded by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey and his vision to showcase the music of Africa continues to inspire us. Using artisanal techniques, we make instruments for every kind of music maker – whether you play at home, at school, at church, or on stage. We’ve been making quality instruments for over half a century. Based in Makhanda, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, our small team produce a range of hand made instruments and send them all over the world. Christian Carver has been at AMI since 1997 – He’s a musician with an engineer’s brain and his design solutions for AMI marimbas have made them the best sounding and most solid instruments available. Ben Carver joined in 2018 and he wears many admin type hats – most crucially, he keeps in touch with our customers. Nwabisa Qangule responds to customers, keeps tabs on the progress of orders, and gets the instruments safely dispatched when they’re complete. Patrick Marthinus leads the workshop team. He is a skilled tuner and he tunes every marimba note on our AMI marimbas. He also knows the secret art of seasoning sneeze wood in the oven – to produce the richly resonant notes of our Orff Xylophones.
In the workshop we have multitaskers Vuyani Libi and Tino Bosch who make each instrument from start to finish. Dr. Mandy Carver is a music education specialist with a long career as a music teacher. She helps pinpoint clients’ needs, develops resources and blogs about music education.
The Diatonic Marimba Story
Professor Andrew Tracey, former Director of the
International Library of African Music was part of a team that developed what
we now know as African Marimba sets, which he calls ‘Zimarimbas’. Here is his
account of how they were developed.
Few players of the popular marimba sets in South Africa
know anything about the origin of these instruments. In the years they have been in South Africa some interesting folk versions of their history have grown up. Some know that marimbas came from Zimbabwe. Some think it is a traditional South African instrument. One CD write-up said: “Zimbabwe’s marimba traditions died out at the end of the 19th century due to colonial interference”. Here’s the real
History of marimbas/xylophones in Southern and Central Africa
Firstly, the marimba is NOT a traditional South African
instrument (except for the Venda people, see below), and secondly, in the 1960s, Zimbabwe had NO existing marimba tradition. There was one early Portuguese quote which says that the ‘Karanga’ played marimba. This is unlikely, because the Portuguese were on the coast, but the people with whom they came into contact there apparently called themselves ‘Karanga’. This was 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/Shangaan, 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 known for
their wonderful singing rather than playing instruments). If any of the Shona had ever played marimba, we would certainly expect to find remnants of memories of it, and in particular, a vocabulary connected with it. But my research has not found such memories or vocabulary.
Some of the Valley Tonga live on the Zimbabwe side of the
Zambezi. Before they were forced to move from their river-side homes to make way for Lake Kariba, they 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. When I visited in 2004, this instrument was remembered by the old men, but no examples of it were
to be found. This small instrument could not be classed 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 were no traditional marimbas 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
Birth of marimbas at Kwanongoma School of African
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 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 Zimbabwe marimbas is this. It all started with Robert Sibson, the Bulawayo City Electrical Engineer and flautist, who later became Director of the Rhodesian Academy of Music (as it was then called). Sibson was concerned that the rich indigenous music of
Zimbabwe was not being encouraged or taught anywhere in the country. In 1959, 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
He had found premises for the new College very near the
power station and 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 could be designed to play both traditional and modern
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 the
models that inspired the instrument. 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 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.
Sibson’s second in charge at the power station was 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.
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 taught marimba for many years at Maru a Pula School, Gaborone, Botswana, was one of the early graduates of the first Kwanongoma College near
the power station. 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 marimba bands.
Three other people who helped considerably in the later
design were Olof Axelsson, one of the Directors of Kwanongoma, Brother 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.
Kurt Huwiler moved to Umtata, South Africa in the early
1980s and set up a marimba factory at Ikhwezi Lokusa School for the Catholic Church. Father Dave Dargie (later Prof Dargie of 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 Xhosa speakers, closely based on the two harmonic series, a whole tone apart, as used in Xhosa 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 continue to be the choice of some schools, churches and clubs that use them to accompany singing. Marimbas in church groups have been the inspiration of many now famous musicians – including Dizu Plaatjies, who used them in his band ‘Amampondo’, from Langa, Cape Town.
Kurt Huwiler retired to Switzerland in 1993, and the factory was taken over by Power Marimbas in Grahamstown, which were taken over in turn by African Musical Instruments cc in 1999, who continue to make full sets (now much improved, extended and diversified) on the Kwanongoma / Huwiler
model. The huge popularity of marimbas is reflected in the fact that in South Africa there are now several other marimba makers that produce 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. Marimbas are hugely popular in schools and cultural groups and many musicians have found it an ideal means of self-employment in the new South Africa. Tell that to anyone who still says that music is not important!
The Steinway of marimbas. Robust, beautifully tuned, easy to transport, the first choice for discerning musicians. Backed by ongoing maintenance and advice is part of AMI’s commitment to customers. Our provenance is shown in the direct line between the AMI marimba and the birth of the Afro marimba sets in 1960. (‘The Diatonic Marimba Story’ has more on this if you want to know more). Based on various African xylophones, the marimbas were developed at the Kwanangoma College of Music in Bulawayo in 1960. Thanks to Kwanangoma alumni as well as the Catholic Church’s embracing of marimbas as a way to indigenise worship, the instruments have literally exploded into Southern African musicking of all kinds (and well beyond African shores). This is due in no small part to their accessibility, and sheer joy-making capacity. Many design improvements have been made to the AMI marimbas over the years and they are now considered to be the finest African marimbas in Southern Africa and possibly the world. They exude quality – from their sleek design, and their beautifully tuned keys, to their robust strength and transportability. Our customers keep coming back because they know that, as with all musical instruments, quality counts.
The mbira is a traditional African instrument, well known in many parts of Africa. With many different variations, sizes, layouts and tunings, the instruments have different names depending on the region. For instance, you would find sansa in Cameroun, likembe in Congo and Angola, karimba in Mozambique, and mbira in Zimbabwe. It was the favourite instrument of pioneering musicologist, and founder of AMI, Hugh Tracey, who first heard it as a young man in Zimbabwe in the 1920’s. He loved its originality, its companionship and the fascination of its crossing finger and sound patterns. For him, the essence of African music was encapsulated in this small, lively instrument that you could hold in your hands. Wanting to share this companionable instrument, Tracey developed a Western tuned version and used the name Kalimba, from the family of instruments in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. That was way back in the 1950’s.
Decades later, AMI has an impressive Kalimba range on offer. Kalimba bodies are made, like the African originals, from resonant kiaat wood, and the keys, which you pluck/stroke with your thumbs, are made of high quality spring steel. It can be played individually or in groups and its clear tone holds its own remarkably well against voices or other instruments. It is an ideal portable instrument for use at home, school, in formal and informal music groups, for music therapy, at camps, while hitchhiking or even when sick in bed.
The kalimba has gone global – it’s lovely harp-like timbre has been included in midi instruments for decades, and various kalimbas are made by many makers around the world. Inevitably, China has jumped on the band wagon and is mass producing exact copies of the AMI Treble kalimba.
Kalimbas are an African invention. They’ve been built by makers through the centuries using local materials and used by musicians in a myriad of cultural traditions. With deep gratitude to the kalimba makers and players of Africa, we are proud to offer our range of African made kalimbas. They continue to be made in Africa, by Africans.