The marimba movement in South African schools, churches and community groups is growing year by year. There are many reasons for this – marimbas are cool, they’re an accessible way to get people making music, and in Southern Africa, they’re a wonderful way to get some diversity into music education. You can’t have a marimba band without marimbas and as the demand for instruments has grown, so has the number of people making marimbas. In South Africa, African Musical Instruments (AMI) bought Power Marimbas in 2000, and Power Marimbas had taken over manufacturing marimbas from Kurt Huweiler in Umtata. Go one step further back, and you’re at Kwanongoma College, where the Afro-marimbas were developed in the early 1960s. So, let’s just say that AMI has been making marimbas for quite a long time, and they have ironed out many of the techniques needed to make strong instruments that sound good. The pic accompanying this post shows a newly unwrapped AMI extended soprano, and the instrument it was replacing on the right.
Let’s face it – marimbas get hammered. There are some groups that do a bit more than hammer them – with resulting broken notes, strings, legs etc. But their job is to stand up to robust playing. Sadly, as more marimba makers enter the market, many of the instruments that are available are just not up to the mark.
Amongst the marimbas that are available in South Africa, there are a number of different basic designs. Essentially, the instruments consist of tuned wooden notes or keys, resonators of some kind. The frame provides strength and there will be some method of attaching the notes to the frame, and, or course, the instrument needs legs. All of these areas need care if the instrument is to do its job.
Starting from the bottom – If the legs are not right, the instrument will not be stable. It’s not easy to play an instrument if it won’t stand still. AMI marimbas steel legs can fold flat against the frame, making moving the instruments from one place to another much easier. (Anyone who has moved marimbas will know why this is a good idea). Wooden legs are not as strong as steel and can break when the marimba is being moved. The frames that hold the tuned notes keep them stable and in place. Different makers have different methods and these are more or less effective. The African Ethos instruments borrow their method from the West African Xylophones, and the notes are strung together (rather like a rope ladder) and the rope is then tensioned across the frame. The notes on these instruments sit together in pairs rather than having equal spacing between each note. The Marimba Workshop instruments use pins for each note to rest on. This follows the Orff Xylophone method. To stop the notes bouncing off their pins during anything but the gentlest playing, an elastic string runs along the top of the notes to keep them in place. The pins, and the moveable elastic, together allow notes to be taken out and changed for a chromatic alternative (again – following the Orff philosophy). The Marimba Workshop instruments were originally taken from a design by Jon Madin, a wonderful Australian music educator. You can read more about Jon’s work here.
Jon had experienced the Zimbabwean marimbas and wanted to spread the marimba love in Australia. He designed a marimba that could be built by community members who would then play the wonderful, inclusive music. The Marimba Workshop got Jon’s permission to use his design and over the years they have made some modifications. The logic of the design follows two things – Orff, as mentioned, and being simple enough for a community to make together. The simplicity is seen in the simplified resonators – individual resonating chambers are only used for the bass notes (otherwise they wouldn’t have much sound), while all other notes rely on reflection for resonance, lying over an open trough. This does mean that there is some variation in tone across the range of the keyboard. Many schools have Marimba Workshop instruments, and the company have done a fine job with teacher training and running marimba festivals.
But I digress. Back to marimbas.
The AMI marimba notes are attached to the frame with nylon string. The removable resonators attach to the frame and line up below the notes. Crucially, the notes and the resonators are tuned to the same pitch and this is what gives the instruments their superior sound. That, and the different tuning techniques used. As we travel around the country on tuning trips, we sometimes find that someone has tuned our AMI marimbas with little understanding of why the AMI notes sound so good in the first place. This can be a disaster if the note has been tuned to the point of no return (and is still not in tune). The basic tuning they receive is the kind of tuning used for some of the marimbas that are being sold today. Depending what you want for your marimba band, and what music you plan to play, you may find this basic tuning is not adequate.
AMI instruments have been copied frequently, but apart from plagiarising the design (!) the pirate makers don’t understand the principles lying behind the logic of the design and the result is a very different instrument. Of course, imitation is the highest form of flattery, but it is no comfort to us that many groups have spent their hard earned budgets on inferior instruments that are not going to last. Just this last week we had a call from a school who rejected our quote last year for a cheaper supplier, and they asked our advice as to what to do with their disappointing purchase. How sad to find yourself with a budget spent and instruments that are unplayable.
The message is simple: know what you are buying, and buy from marimba makers that will be around for ongoing service.