There’s many reasons to be excited for this weekend’s Mozart to Marimba concert, so get your tickets! Guest artist Richard Goode will be tackling Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18, alongside the LACO orchestra. Jeffrey Kahane will be conducting the west coast premiere of Word of Mouth by Timo Andres, as well as Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. But the reason that I’m counting the days until the concert is the Concerto for Marimba and Strings, featuring LACO principal percussionist Wade Culbreath. My first major introduction to the instrument was at a LACO concert in 2008, featuring Makoto Nakura on marimba, and it was a thrilling, jaw-dropping experience, and I’m sure this weekend’s concert will be equally exhilarating – at minimum! I’ve been brushing up on my marimba knowledge, and with my list of Eight Things You Never Knew About The Marimba, you can too!
1) A marimba player is called a… um… marimba player, but a more fun word that’s also used is marimbist.
2) Marimba is a compound word, that combines two words from the Bantu languages in Africa: ‘ma’, meaning ‘many’, and ‘rimba’, meaning ‘single bar xylophone’.
3) Xylophones and similar instruments (like the marimba) date back to the 13th century in Africa. There’s an African origin story concerning its creation. According to a Zulu myth, a goddess named Marimba was cursed by another goddess, who told Marimba that her husband would die within a few months of their wedding day. Marimba’s first two husbands indeed perished, as foretold – one trampled by an elephant, the second killed by a lion. When Marimba’s son captured a stranger from another tribe and brought him to their village, Marimba took his bow and arrow, and used the arrow to affix a dried gourd to the bow, creating the first marimba. The villagers never heard anything like it, and Marimba’s songs grew more beautiful as she suffered continued heartbreak – including the death of her third and final husband.
4) While modern marimbas can be traced back to Central America, and, before that, Africa, similar instruments were being played in southeast Asia. In fact, the oldest-known musical instrument has been called a “stone marimba” and was discovered in Vietnam in 1949. It is estimated to be 5,000 years old!
5) While popular in folk music for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1940s that marimbas regularly became part of classical orchestras. The Clair Omar Musser marimba ensemble was an early example of marimbas in the concert hall, and they received a lot of attention after performing at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. New compositions also helped popularize the orchestral marimba. Early works include a concertino by American composer Paul Creston in 1940 and a concerto by the French composer Darius Milhaud in 1947. And here’s a fun fact about this fun fact: Milhaud was a very popular and in-demand teacher, and his student roster included jazz great Dave Brubeck and songwriting/performing legend Burt Bacharach.
6) The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico.
7) Marimba has made a mark in mainstream music as well. The Rolling Stones songs “Under My Thumb” and “Out of Time” feature the marimba, as does “Island Girl” by Elton John and “Mamma Mia” by ABBA. Björk has collaborated with famed percussionist Evelyn Glennie multiple times, and the marimba can be heard on a few of her songs, including “My Spine,” from her album Telegram.
8) Marimbist Nancy Zeltsman, chair of the Percussion Department at the Boston Conservatory, explains on her website how easy it is to transport a marimba, which can often weigh well over 100 pounds: “[You can use] a van or station wagon–or even my Toyota Prius! A marimba breaks down into smaller parts quite impressively. The ‘white notes’ and ‘black notes’ of the keyboard are each strung up like huge necklaces which can just lift off and roll up. Each of the long braces across the instrument fold in half. The banks of resonators fold in half. The end pieces come off and go in separate cases. Eight or nine cases total.”