As the marimba movement grows, there is a corresponding demand for sets of instruments. There are a number of manufacturers, using different designs, using different materials. I have written here on why you need to make sure you are buying from a reputable maker, should you be looking to invest in a set of marimbas.
A marimba consists of a set of tuned wooden keys. It is essentially a xylophone: an instrument with wooden notes. Depending on the type of wood used, and the attention paid to the tuning, the quality of the sound – both the volume and the timbre will vary. Another important factor which changes the sound quality is whether or not the notes have resonators to amplify their sound.
Around Africa, there are different construction methods for xylophones. The mode of construction usually corresponds with or complements the way the instrument is used. For example, in Malawi, the magogodo xylophone has 10 notes which are ‘loose’ of ‘free’ in that they are not attached to the frame of the instrument. The magogodo is played by two players, who sit opposite each other with the instrument between them. The notes can be carried from place to place and set up on some sturdy pieces of wood when people want to play. For instance, if boys are out watching livestock in the fields, or trying to keep birds away from crops, the instrument is very portable and can easily be set up wherever they are. Making music is an excellent way to keep yourself company when days are long!
The Ugandan amadinda and akadinda work on the same construction principle as the magogodo in that the notes are not fixed to a frame. The portability of the instrument is a real advantage when musicians travel from one place to another. But there is a problem with loose xylophone keys – they don’t stay put, and bounce around when struck, often shifting out of place. This would be a big problem when you consider the speed of Ugandan xylophone music, but the solution is that young children are given the task of quickly pushing the notes back into place as the music is being played. The players just have to play, the kids make sure the notes are where they should be. (This is a fantastic way to start apprenticing new players, by the way: the kids listen and watch and take it all in).
Another construction method used for xylophones is for the keys to be ‘fixed’ to the frames in some way. The West African balafon played by the Mande and Voltaic peoples, and the timbila played by the Chopi people from Mozambique are fixed xylophones. Although these cultures come from diagonally opposite parts of Africa, there are similarities in the construction of the instruments (Isn’t that cool?). The keys are attached to the frame with leather twine, and they have resonators made of gourd or calabash. The Chopi xylophones orchestras are made up of different sized and pitched instruments that form large ensembles – many instruments are played at once, and so, historically, they were less likely to be taken from one place to the next. Their solid construction makes them less portable, but that is not really a big problem if they are mostly played locally.
Southern African Afro marimba sets are hybrid instruments that were not a copy of any one tradition, but take elements of different African xylophone traditions. Like the Chopi timbila, they have different size, ranges and musical roles. Marimba notes are all fixed – but there are a variety of methods for fixing the keys to the frames as you can read here. They are played by groups, often in schools, but also in churches and other community groups. They are also played by gigging musicians. The instruments need to be portable, and the keys need to stay put. (Anyone who has worked with Orff xylophones (which have loose keys) will know how the keys can bounce off their pins, and are quite likely to get lost in a busy classroom or when the instruments are moved from one place to another for performances.
AMI marimbas have been designed to address the issues raised here – tuning and quality of sound, stability of keyboards, and portability. AMI marimba keys are attached to a steel frame. They are suspended by nylon string which holds them in place and allows enough movement for the wooden keys to resonate. This means that the keyboard is extremely sturdy, and the notes are equally spaced for ease of performance. The resonators are easily removed from the frame and the instrument’s legs fold down flat against the keyboard and frame to make them easier to transport. For bands on the move, this is a huge advantage. It means they are easier for one person to pick up, and it also means they can be packed more conveniently into a vehicle. One more advantage is that being less cumbersome, the keyboards are less likely to get damaged in transport. Christian Carver pioneered this system for the AMI marimbas, and some other makers have borrowed it for their instruments too. Like xylophone players all over Africa, what we want from marimbas is, first and foremost, good sound. But we also need the keys to stay where we want them and not to shift around. An important goal of just about all marimba groups is to perform, even if it is just once in a while to showcase work done in the classroom. Performance almost always means moving instruments to an appropriate venue, whether it is 200 meters to the school hall, or 1000km to play in a festival. And that is when folding marimba frames are your best friend