Its characteristics, origin and use today
Marimba is a percussion instrument, more specifically a keyboard percussion because its sound is produced by striking the bars with the wool-wrapped mallets. Vibraphone, xylophone and other similar instruments belong to the same group. However they all have a very distinctive sound. Classical 5-octave marimba is quite a new invention and thus it is only starting to make its way on stages as a solo instrument or in an orchestra. Marimba can be heard in a lot of recent film music. It is becoming more and more recognized especially because of its very warm, mellow and deep wooden sound, and because of the wide range of music one can play on it; from jazz to baroque and world music. Since the late Sixties a new repertoire made especially for the marimba is emerging and today there are numerous compositions and composers who write for marimba.
There are many references to instruments similar to marimba in various parts of Africa, Central America, and Ancient Greece (where the word xylophone was invented). Since the information on its origin is fragmented it is very hard to pin point where it comes from. It is commonly understood that modern marimba has evolved out of its ancient predecessor coming from Africa; probably Zimbabwe or Mozambique. In Africa marimbas were played as a part of rituals and celebrations, usually in combination with drums, singing and dancing. The music was very rhythmic and pattern-like.
In the 16th century slaves brought the African marimba to the Central America and since then it has been a national instrument in Guatemala and south Mexico.
There they started playing their own traditional music on the marimba, which had to be adapted to this new instrument. Three or four players would play on one very large marimba and form an ensemble together, with drums and double bass. This music can still be heard today on the streets and restaurants in Guatemala. Since this area is very close to the US it was only a matter of time before westerners would hear it and start playing it. This happened at the beginning of 20th century when a marimba band of Hurtado brothers from Guatemala toured in the States.
That is when J. C. Deagan first heard, and decided to start manufacturing, marimbas for the market; the first one being made in 1918. At that point marimba was introduced to a wider audience mainly performing jazz and other genres of popular music. It was still considered a slightly bigger xylophone and it was not until the second part of 20th century that marimba was introduced to classical music.
5-octave concert marimba, which is an established instrument today, has been developed in Japan by engineers of Yamaha and the vision of marimba virtuoso Keiko Abe. Ms. Abe was the first one to play a full recital of serious music on the marimba in 1968. Commissioned composers provided her with the music and she proved that marimba can be played as a classical instrument. However, marimbas at that time were not yet totally suitable for classical performances because they lacked expressive and physical range. After almost two decades of collaboration with Yamaha the first 5-octave marimba was made: this was in 1988.
Since then various manufacturers in Europe and America have started producing concert marimbas. Now marimba can be played in all different genres and its use is extensive. At the beginning of 21st century marimba has widely come into music schools and is being taught alongside other keyboard percussion. Recently some universities are even offering a study program with specialization in marimba.
For a more technical evolution of the marimba click here.