Its origin has
lead to much controversy; some people believe the marimba originated
in the African continent, others in Indonesia, and still others
in the Amazon.
Those who place its origin in Africa believe that when the African
people arrived in Guatemalan lands they built some of the marimbas
they had used in their native land, and that the local Indians copied
the model and modified it in their own way adding resonating chambers
made of bamboo or gourd pipes. At the beginning these were played
by only one person; later on the instrument was perfected in such
a way that allowed it to become popular among all Guatemalan social
The resonating chambers are currently made of cedar or cypress
wood, tuned according to the key, and with a membrane attached to
the lower end with wax, thus allowing the reverberating sound called
"charleo" that allows for the sound to go on. The first
marimbas only had diatonic scales, and were called simple marimbas;
in these, in order to make a sound flat, the players attached a
small wax ball to one end of the key, thus lowering half a tone,
something marimbists call transposition.
The first marimbas that are known are the ring or bow marimbas,
consisting in a hormigo wood keyboard placed on a frame made of
another type of wood (pine or cedar) with a cloth belt to allowed
the marimbist to hang it from his waist and play in a portable way;
they had gourds or calabashes which served as resonating chambers.
These marimbas can still be seen in museums and may still be found
in some places far away from the city, where they are played from
time to time by farmers who have inherited them from their ancestors.
Some time later the simple marimba appeared, which produces only
diatonic scales, and has resonating chambers and a keyboard where
three or four people can play (according to their size); this assembly
was enlarged by the addition of a small marimba called tenor, where
two or three people could play; this is how the instrument came
to be known at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the
first double-keyboard marimbas appeared. The pair of simple marimbas
(a big one and a small one) was called "marimba cuache".
According to Lic. Castañeda Paganini, the first person to
build a double-keyboard marimba capable of producing chromatic scales
was Guatemalan Sebastián Hurtado, following the suggestions
of eminent musician Julian Paniagua Martínez.
In the year 1899, with the occasion of Guatemalan President Manuel
Estrada Cabrera’s birthday, the Hurtado brothers’ marimba
gave a concert in the Capital City. In the repertoire they included
the "Xelajú" waltz and a pasodoble named after
the ruler. The concert was played on the first double marimba that
arrived in the city of Guatemala.
At present it is common to use two marimbas, the smaller being
called tenor and the bigger simply marimba; the number of players
is the same as in the simple cuache marimbas, with the addition
of a double bass with one string less called violón, which
is played with pulses, and a drum to stress the rhythm of the various
From the highest to the lowest, the marimba has the following puestos
(positions): piccolo, triple, centro, and bajo. In the big marimba,
it has become common to play the first voice of the melody in the
piccolo and the triple, the chord in the centro, and the lower tone
of the chord in the bajo, with its corresponding change to avoid
monotony. The tenor is played as follows: the second voice and sometimes
the second and the third voice in the piccolo and triple, something
marimbists call llenos (full), and the bajo of the tenor reinforces
the first voice, sometimes playing the counter-melody.
At present some professional marimbists playing the instrument
from a written part introduce arrangements in which each player
plays a different part; this has made playing the instrument more
complex but has given it more charm and elegance.
Source: La Música
en Guatemala, Algunos Músicos y Compositores (Music in Guatemala,
Some Musicians and Composers), written by J. Eduardo Tánchez.
1987. Editorial Impresos Industriales, 3a. calle 3-17 zona 9. Guatemala