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Marimba

struck idiophone

The Guatemalan marimba de tecomates on figure 1 ('gourd marimba', also called the marimba de arco) is a recent acquisition of the American collections of the musical instrument museum in Brussels. In the early 1980s expats brought the instrument, which measures about 1,5 meter in length, to Belgium.

Notwithstanding its close ties with the Maya culture, the marimba de tecomates can hardly deny its African roots. Like the West-African balafo and the Congolese manza, to name a few, this instrument consists of a single row of tuned wooden slats suspended over gourd resonators in a wooden frame. The whole instrument is kept together by vegetal chords and small wooden pegs and sticks. No nails are involved, no glue has been used. Small holes are made into the gourds onto which pieces of pig gut (now lost) used to be glued with wax, to create a buzzer effect (charleo; e.g. compare with the bolange from Sierra Leone, fig. 2). Traces of wax can be noticed on the keys; the addition of wax served to change the pitch of the key.

An arc used to be attached to the instrument, with the player sitting within the arc (fig. 3). Compare, for example, with the manza of the Zande people in the RDC at the beginning of the 20th century, where the arc, however, holds the keyboard against the sitting musician, separating him from the keyboard (fig. 4). A one leg, wooden fork holds up the opposite side and keeps the instrument in balance. As can be seen in figure 5 the branch of the arc has been cut off later on, probably for transport reasons. The marimba de arco was amongst the earliest marimbas played in Central America.

The instrument of the mim has 24 keys and as many gourds, one suspended under each key, the common number of the marimba de arco. A single musician plays the gourd instrument, usually in rituals, and produces relatively simple melodies in traditional rhythms. Under the influence of European repertory the tuning is no longer penta- or heptatonic, but diatonic.

Research has pointed out that the African marimba was introduced to the Americas along the Pacific coastal areas of Costa Rica and Nicaragua and travelled from the coastal slave settlements to the Guatemalan highlands. Colonial archives from the 17th and 18th century refer to the importation of large numbers of African slaves to Guatemala to provide labour on the indigo plantations.

The marimba de tecomates became closely tied to the Maya culture in Guatemala. The oldest existing references to the instrument in the Guatemalan highlands state that it has been played since 1680 by Indians in the multi-ethnic settlements (pajudes) around the old capital city of Guatemala, Santiago de los Caballeros. According to Sergio Navarrete Pellicer, in his study on the Maya music, the early adoption of the marimba by indigenous societies is "a testimony to the early cultural and racial mixing of African, Spanish and Indian populations".[1] In those pajudes, dance, music, and song were shared during moments of rest and entertainments and on religious holidays. These conditions induced cross-cultural exchanges and created the fertile ground for the development of the Guatemalan indigenous version of the marimba. The origin was African, the repertory played on it was mostly European and the performers were predominantly Indian. Local songs, influenced by European genres, were soon identified as "typically indigenous". By 1769 the marimba, alongside the caramba (mouth bow), was already seen as being played solely by Indians. Indian musicians still consider playing the marimba an expression of the continuity of ancestral tradition (see also the video mentioned below) - playing the marimba is communicating with past generations, it has a spiritual dimension.

However, colonial authorities issued prohibitions against these indigenous musical events, which they considered illustrations of the Indians' stubborn faith in pagan cult. The music was profane, the dances interracial and intersexual and the consumption of alcohol abundant, all indicating a lack of respect for God and a wilful deviation of the colonial catholic rules and morals. The diatonic marimba became an underground instrument in a forbidden tradition. The Indians hid their instruments, constructing them clandestinely and playing them in secret ceremonies. Still in 1981, the Guatemalan government banned indigenous gatherings with music.

Nevertheless, in 1978 the marimba was declared Guatemala's "National Instrument" - 17 October became the official "Día Nacional de la Marimba". Out of a romantic and exotic vision of the ancient Indian's cultural heritage, the politically dominant Ladino elite expropriated the instrument as a symbol of the country's national identity, appealing to an assumed identification with the ancestral Maya's - which is in strange contrast with the second-class position indigenous people still occupy in current Guatemalan society.[2] The African roots of the instruments are entirely ignored in this process of acculturation.
As a matter of fact, the "national" marimba is not the ancient diatonic marimba de tecomates. From the 18th century onwards, the diatonic version underwent "technical advancement". The chromatic marimba has two keyboards, and is played by more than one musician. The gourds are replaced by wooden or metal resonators. With up to 78 keys (marimba grande), this "wooden piano" proved adaptable to classical and popular European genres, fashionable in salons and ballrooms. It is this instrument that is played in luxury city hotels, by hired musicians wearing traditional Indian costumes (see fig. 7). As Naverrete Pellicer points out, "much of the twentieth-century cultural nationalism was motivated by the need to construct an external image of a colourful and attractively distinctive indigenous Guatemala to attract tourists".[3]

The mim's marimba de tecomates inv. 2019.0012 is an indigenous instrument, probably used by Indians in secret events, as part of an ancient tradition. By the 1970s our marimba lay in the window of an antiquarian located on the market of Chichicastengo, a town in the highlands of Guatemala (fig. 8). There it caught the attention of a Belgian expatriate. Forty years later it arrived in the mim, together with a huipil (smock top), another marker of Indian tradition (fig. 9).

Saskia Willaert


[1] Naverrete Pellicer, Maya Achi, 74 ("a testimony to the early cultural and racial mixing of African, Spanish and Indian populations")

[2] Voir Naverrete Pellicer, Maya Achi, 78-9 ("the Ladino elite's romantic and exotic vision of the ancient Indian's cultural heritage")

[3] Naverrete Pellicer, Maya Achi, 238 ("much of the twentieth-century cultural nationalism was motivated by the need to construct an external image of a colourful and attractively distinctive indigenous Guatemala to attract tourists")

 

Bibliography

 Audio examples

  • Marimba de Tecomaties: Tomás Canil playing "Sones de cofradía" on a marimba de tecomates in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, 1999. Track 9 of the CD, ORIGENES: RESONANCIAS DEL MUNDO MAYA (Guatemala: Amigos del País, 1999), cited in Neustadt, "Reading Indigenous and Mestzo Musical Instruments".

Accessible at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=xqLtHR6Ag88

Video

"Music in Guatemala: Musical Instruments of Mesoamerica" dir. Alfonso Moises, 2015 (from 14'02") - https://filmfreeway.com/790186,

Journal article

"The Marimba of Mexico and Central America", Robert Garfias

https://www.jstor.org/stable/780267?seq=6#metadata_info_tab_contents

Media
Images: 
Marimba de tecomates, Chichicastenango, end 19th-begin 20th cent, inv. 2019.0012
Bolange, Sierra Leone, Year unknown
Marimba de tecomates, Chichicastenango, end 19th-begin 20th cent, inv. 2019.0012
Marimba player in Chichicastenango - © Robert Garfias
Manza, Azande group, Democratic Republic of the Congo, begin of the 20th cent.
Manza, Azande group, Democratic Republic of the Congo, begin of the 20th cent.
Marimba players in Antiqua, Guatemala, 17th of November 2007 - © Greg & Annie
Market of Chichicastenango 2009 - © Chensiyuan / wikimedia
Marimba de tecomates with a huipil, Chichicastenango, inv. 2019.0012