Biografía

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 classes.

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 melodies played.

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 City.