A marimba is a xylophone. There are other kinds of xylophones – ones that are not marimbas. The word comes from the Greek words xylon and phonē – meaning wood and sound. We have a name from Greek culture – and for some time there has been conjecture that xylophones originated in South East Asia… (but then perhaps SE Asia got the idea from Africa!). But the story of xylophones is an international one and tells the story of people moving across the world, and finding new ways to make music through these adaptable instruments. The spread of the instruments says something about the appeal of their warm sound, and the sheer fun of playing.
In Indonesia, there’s the gambang, in Thailand, the ranat. These two examples have slightly different methods of construction – the gambang notes are laid on an insulating layer above the resonator box. The notes are held in place with the same system used on Orff classroom xylophones – a metal pins through one end of the note and another two pins on the other end separating it from the note on either side. Gambang can be tuned to a pentatonic or heptatonic scale – corresponding to the gamelan conventions. The Thai ranat has notes that are suspended with string running through both ends of each note, holding them in a loop that is then suspended at each end of the instrument. In South East Asia, alongside these wooden instruments are those with metal notes, not wooden (This was also an inspiration for Orff instruments – the wooden contrasting with the metals). With fascinating similarities, it’s easy to see how connections have been made between the SE Asian instruments and African xylophones. Although there are similarities in construction, one thing that is absolutely not up for debate is the diversity and sheer number of African xylophone traditions scattered the length and breadth of Africa. This diversity makes a case for xylophones originating in Africa.
The range of African xylophone traditions is impressive. Some traditions have huge xylophones played by up to six people. In other traditions, xylophones are played by just one person. For instance, a few xylophone keys carried around by herders and set up across their legs and played to while away the time. Some Xylophones are traditionally played for royalty – like the impressive Buganda Akadinda in Uganda. Others are an essential part of funeral ceremonies like the Balafon. Large ensembles of Mozambican Chopi xylophones (pictured below) perform elaborately composed music while other solo instruments might just be played for a person’s own enjoyment. In West Africa, particularly amongst the widely spread Mande and Voltaic peoples, xylophones are by far the dominant traditional instrument, far more so than at the other end of Africa. In the far north of South Africa, the Venda mbila mutondo is sadly, virtually extinct today, but it is related to the Chopi timbila, where the music continues to be played. Between West and South Africa, there is another concentration of xylophones – in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. In Central Africa, the stunning Kuomboka ceremony of the Lozi in Zambia includes the simbila xylophone. In this annual ceremony, the chief is transported along the Zambezi River, accompanied by musicians. These are just some of the many African xylophone traditions.
Xylophones have made their way across the Atlantic too. Instruments in Central America are called ‘marimba’ – a term closely related to various bantu words for different instruments, and music. And the connections go beyond the name: Similarities in construction, for instance resonators made from gourds suspended below the notes, make a case for the argument that the Central American instruments were introduced from Africa. Another tell-tale feature is that these instruments have buzzers! There is a small hole in each resonator, over which a thin membrane is set (for instance many African instruments use the fabric from spider’s nests, but the Central American ones use animal membrane) which gives an extra kick to the sound. Many Africans were brought across the Atlantic as slaves, and although we don’t know where exactly the marimba tradition started in Central America, it certainly took root as today marimba traditions are found right across the region: in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, and Honduras. These marimba traditions have been infused with local musical styles, creating something truly indigenous, obscuring the African origins of the instruments.
And back in Zimbabwe, in the early 1960’s, the marimbas developed at Kwanongoma College were continuing a long and fascinating tradition. Marimbas – not new, but adaptable, suitable for young, old, small groups or large, big music, or intimate. Easy to play, but as challenging as you want when you want more. All these traditions are interesting and worth a deep dive. The musical kaleidoscope is dizzying. Every xylophone or marimba tradition tells us about the values of the people, their ideas not just about music, but about life itself.
And in a wonderful cyclic pattern, the Zimbabwean marimba has its own diaspora too. Diatonic marimba sets have been played on the west coast of the USA and Canada for decades, after being introduced by Zimbabwean Dumisani Maraire. And they’ve caught on in Australia and New Zealand too in schools and community groups. And as our world is ever more connected, AMI is making instruments for groups from Norway to Hong Kong to Canada, to Saudi Arabia.
And in case you are wondering, a xylophone is not always a marimba, but a marimba is always a xylophone.