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The marimba is a musical instrument in the percussion family. Keys or bars (usually made of wood) are struck with mallets to produce musical tones. The keys are arranged as those of a piano, with the accidentals raised vertically and overlapping the natural keys to aid the performer both visually and physically.
The concert marimba is pitched an octave lower than its cousin, the xylophone. Both xylophone and marimba bars are usually made of rosewood, but synthetic substitutions are becoming more and more popular. The bars of the marimba are wider and thinner than those of the xylophone, especially at the center; this change in shape causes the bars to respond a different set of overtones found in the overtone series, giving the instrument a richer tone. In particular the first overtone is two octaves above the fundamental frequency of the key, whereas a xylophone key's first overtone is an octave and a fifth above the fundamental. The result is that a xylophone will have a much brighter and shorter sound and is played with relatively harder mallets than the mellower marimba, which is typically played using comparatively softer mallets. Furthermore, whereas the xylophone's key widths are constant along its entire length, modern marimba keys are usually short (both lengthwise and widthwise) at the higher-pitched end and gradually "graduate" into the bottom octaves. This ensures that larger marimbas, such as 5-octaves, have enough material to generate low notes and overtones.
The modern instrument
The key to the marimba's rich sound is its resonators. These are metal tubes (usually aluminum) that hang below each bar, and the length varies according to the frequency that the bar produces. Vibrations from the bars resonate as they pass through the tubes, which amplify the tone in a manner very similar to the way in which the body of a guitar or cello would. In instruments exceeding 4½ octaves, the length of tubing required for the bass notes exceeds the height of the instrument. Some manufacturers, such as Malletech, compensate for this by bending the ends of the tubes. Others, such as Adams Musical Instruments and Yamaha, expand the tubes into large box-shaped bottoms, resulting in the necessary amount of resonating space without having to extend the tubes. This is also achieved by custom manufacturer Marimba One by widening the resonators into an oval shape, with the lowest ones reaching nearly a foot in width.
Modern marimba uses include solo performances, percussion ensembles, marimba concertos, jazz ensembles, marching band (front ensembles), Drum and bugle corps (DCI), and wind ensemble or orchestra compositions. Contemporary composers have utilized the unique sound of the marimba more and more in recent years, and it is common to find them in most new music for wind ensemble, although less so for orchestra.
The folk instrument
The term marimba is also applied to various traditional folk instruments, the precursors of which may have developed independently in West Africa (the balafon) and in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The tradition of the gourd-resonated and equal-ratio heptatonic-tuned Timbila of Mozambique is particularly well-developed, and is typically played in large ensembles in coordination with a choreographed dancing performance, such as those depicting a historical dramatization. Traditional marimba bands are especially popular in Guatemala, where they are the national symbol of culture, but are also found in Costa Rica and parts of the highlands of southern Mexico, as well as among Afro-Ecuadorians; gyil duets are the traditional music of Dagara funerals in Ghana.
In the most traditional versions, various sizes of natural gourds are attached below the keys to act as resonators; in more sophisticated versions carved wooden resonators are substituted, allowing for more precise tuning of pitch. In Central America, a hole is often carved into the bottom of each resonator and then covered with sheep skin to add a characteristic "buzzing" or "rattling" sound known as charleo. Chenowith, Vida. The Marimbas of Guatemala., quoted in Squyres, Danielle. "The Marimba, Xylophone and Orchestra Bells", Mechanical Music Digest Archives, 2002-01-02. Retrieved on 2006-12-06.
In more contemporary style marimbas wood is replaced by PVC tubing. The holes in the bottoms of the tubes are covered with a thin layer of paper to produce the buzzing noise.
According to Professor Andrew Tracey, marimbas were only introduced to Zimbabwe in 1960 .
Zimbabwean marimba based upon Shona music has also become popular in the West, which adopted the original use of these instruments to play transcriptions of mbira dzavadzimu (as well as nyunga nyunga and matepe) music. The first of these transcriptions had originally been used for music education in Zimbabwe. These Zimbabwean-style instruments are often made with a single row of keys (without the chromatic "black" notes on a second row) along a C major scale, which allows them to be played with a 'western-tuned' mbira (G nyamaropa). Frequently instruments are fashioned with the addition of an F# key placed inline between the F and G keys, which allows the playing of songs in G major, although the correspondence between mbira tunings and western keys is a much more complex issue. Other variations in tuning exist, and some musicians prefer the omission of the F# key.
In the United States, there are Zimbabwean marimba bands in particularly high concentration in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, but bands exist from the East Coast through California and even to Hawaii and Alaska. The main event for this community is ZimFest, the annual Zimbabwean Music Festival. The bands are composed of instruments from high sopranos, through to lower soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. Resonators are usually made with holes covered by thin cellophane (similar to the balafon) to achieve the characteristic buzzing sound. As of 2006, the repertoires of United-States bands tends to have a great overlap, due to the common source of the Zimbabwean musician Dumisani Maraire, who was one of the few key people who first brought Zimbawean music to the West, coming to the University of Washington in 1968.
The Marimba or Shilimba or Shinjimba as the Nkoya People of Western Zambia call it are believed to be the introducers of the Shilimba or "marimba" instrument in Southern Africa. The Nkoya people use the Shilimba at their Traditional Royal Ceremonies like the famous Kazanga Nkoya Cultural Ceremony held annually between June and July in there homeland in Kaoma District, Western Zambia under Mwene (King) Mutondo and his equal counterpart Mwene (King) Kahare of the Nkoya Royal Establishment (NRE) part of the Nkoya ancient State which was started around 1700AD.
They Shilimba is now used in most parts of Zambia although roots of the instruments come back to Western Zambia among Nkoya people.
The mallet handle is commonly made of wood, but may also be metal or carbon fiber. The diameter of the handle can range from .25 - 1 inch. Mallet heads consist of plastics, rubber, wood, or variations of these with a yarn, cord, or hemp wrap. The diameter of the mallet head can be 1 - 3 inches. The size and softness of the mallet head increases proportionally to the size of instrument's keys. Handle diameter can be influenced by mallet technique in the sense that multiple mallets in the same hand will require a smaller diameter.
Modern marimba music calls for simultaneous use of between two and six mallets (most commonly two or four), granting the performer greater virtuosity and range. Multiple mallets are held in the same hand using any of a number of techniques or grips. For use of two mallets in each hand, the most common grips are the Burton grip (made popular by Gary Burton), the traditional grip (or "cross grip") and the Musser-Stevens grip (made popular by Leigh Howard Stevens). Each grip is perceived to have its own benefits and drawbacks. Choice of grip varies by region (Musser-Stevens grip and Burton grip are more popular in the United States, while traditional grip is more popular in Japan), by instrument (Burton grip is less likely to be used on marimba than on vibraphone) and by the taste of the individual performer.
- List of marimba performers
- List of marimba manufacturers
- Keyboard percussion
- Front ensemble
- Glass Marimba
- Van Gogh by Numbers: Vibes/Marimba Duo Project
- Musical Stones of Skiddaw
- List that includes marimba recordings of Skokiaan[]
- Marimba.org - Marimba Music Portal
- Classical Marimba League
- Science of the Marimba - Scientific Aspects of its Construction and Performace
- The La Favre 5 Octave Marimba - Physics and Construction with Images, Sounds, Animations and Data
- 'Music for Strings and Marimba' Listen to an MP3 recording and view/print sheet music
- Classic Mario songs played on the marimba, video
- Dave's Percussion Library Online - Information about music for Marimba
- How the Southern African marimbas came into existence, by Andrew Tracey