Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Modern Marimba: Legacy from Quetzaltenango

In Guatemala, marimba music ensembles can be seen and heard everywhere, even in the remotest corners of the country. The marimba is, in fact, the national instrument of Guatemala, and has been an important part of holiday celebrations for hundreds of years. I invite you to share with me the beautiful music that is featured in today's post, you will not be disappointed.
The earliest version of the instrument was probably the arch marimba, which came from West Africa. Afro-Caribbean slaves could have introduced this marimba to Guatemala as early as 1550. This primitive instrument played a simple pentatonic or diatonic scale and had a range of less than two octaves.
In 1894 Julian Paniagua Martinez and Sebastian Hurtado developed the first chromatic marimba, which would have a scale exactly like the piano. Now, for the first time, modern European style music could be played on this new marimba. A large collection of modern dance pieces were composed by marimba players and composers such as Domingo Bethancourt (1906-82), the Ovalle brothers, the Hurtado brothers, as well as the famous Mariano Valverde (1884-1956), Wotzbeli Aguilar (1897-1940) and Belarmino Molina (1879-1950). Marimba design and manufacture underwent other improvements as well. Primitive gourd resonators were replaced with accurately tuned wooden box resonators. Bars and resonators were now encased in magnificent carved frames.
A distinguishing feature of the modern Guatemalan marimba is its size and range. It is built to accommodate three or four musicians at once. Each player has a specified area and register to play, much like a choir has bass, tenor, alto, and soprano parts. A typical marimba ensemble usually consists of a marimba for three players, another marimba for four players, a drum kit, and a string bass. The marimba is the principal and most important instrument in Guatemalan folk music, which is influenced by the music of Spain and West Africa. The marimba is also used to perform many other styles of music, including classical music and modern international popular music.
The Marimba was first introduced to North America in 1908 by the Hurtado family marimba ensemble. In the U.S. and Europe many 20th century composers have created large works for the Marimba, just as you'd find for piano, violin, or flute. A solo marimba performance can be a compelling experience. The instrument itself has a striking appearance, and the range of sounds it is capable of producing are rich and uniquely beautiful.
Modern marimbas are constructed using rosewood for the bars and aluminum and/or brass for the resonators. Due to shortages in tropical hardwoods and growing environmental concerns, materials such as fiberglass are being developed to replace the hardwoods. The success of these attempts has been mixed. The range of the instrument varies depending on the model, and it is fairly standardized among manufacturers, mainly 4, 4.3, 4.5 and 5 octaves with the second C above treble staff as the highest note.
In Jazz, the marimba has also found a home. Jazz vibes players such as Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton have included the marimba in many of their recordings. In fact, the group "Double Image" uses a vibraphone and marimba to head up the band. The popular Jazz fusion group Spyro Gyra features a marimba soloist in several compositions, and my favorite, Morning Dance, was included in the live concert they performed a few years ago at the Ermita de la Santa Cruz in Antigua Guatemala. What a show!
In a world full of technology, where modern music is dominated by electronic instruments, simple acoustic instruments are finding a large audience. Hand made percussion instruments from South and Central America, exotic horns made from giant sea shells, and even Australian aboriginal instruments are being used more and more in contemporary western music. The marimba, born in tribal Africa and perfected in Guatemala, is a big part of this musical trend.
For Guatemalan marimba music, here are some recommendations:

More results for guatemala marimba music


  1. Wow this is a lot of really interesting information! My boyfriend plays marimba and one time we found someone's handmade little African marimba in a practice room--it was so exciting. Anyway, I'm trying to write a blog post involving that type of a marimba, but I know most people wouldn't know what I was talking about so would you mind if I showed your picture and linked to this post so they could get some better information? You can see my blog at if you want.

    1. The African marimba like instrument in the picture is called a Balafon and it is a Mandinka instrument from West African countries like The Gambia, Senegal etc... :)

  2. I am very sorry for the delay in getting back to you; my job is so time-consuming that I have neglected this blog, though I am glad you found the information interesting.
    I read yours and found out that you linked your marimba-related post to a nice article. Always happy to learn!


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