The origin of the name
Like the instrument itself the name ”marimba” originated in Africa; the words rimba (= xylophone with a single bar) and ma (= a great number of objects) are Bantu (spoken in Malawi and Mozambique). In many African languages the term ma-rimba is therefore used to describe instruments with several bars. In a broader sense the name is also applied to another type of instrument typical of Africa, the lamellophones (= instruments with metal prongs fixed on the outside of a soundbox and plucked by the fingers). The name marimba accompanied the instrument from Africa via Latin America to Europe, where in many countries the suffix -phone (Greek for ”sound”) has been added.
Technically the marimba could also be described as a low-pitched xylophone, which simply means ”wood sounder”. But the cultural backgrounds of the two instruments are vastly different; the marimba originated in central Africa but developed independently, gaining its own identity and significance, as the following paragraphs show.
Origins in Africa
Xylophones are not found everywhere in Africa. Various types can be found from central Africa down to South Africa, and the instrument is particularly common on both the west and east coasts (Angola, Mozambique). The first evidence of historical xylophones in Africa seems to show that they originated in what is now Mali in about the 13th century.
It is generally accepted that xylophones with calabashes as resonators, which became the model for Latin American marimbas and gave them the name, were first widespread in central Africa (Tanzania, Congo). In Africa, calabashes are still made out of the dried gourds of the calabash tree; they are the same size as a pumpkin. Suitable calabashes are rare and consequently valuable. The pitch of the calabash must correspond exactly with that of the bar. Such xylophones feature a special means of amplification, a membrane called a “mirliton”. A hole is drilled in each gourd which is then covered by a mirliton (of paper or from a spider’s nest). This membrane vibrates in sympathy when the corresponding bar is struck and produces a buzzing noise which has the effect of amplifying the sound.
Independent development in Latin America
Africans sold as slaves to Central and South America in the 16th and 17th centuries continued to make their native instruments there. The xylophones known as marimbas underwent further development on the American continent, especially in Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil. In these countries the calabashes were replaced by precisely tuned wood resonator chambers. Mirlitons were still fitted to the resonators which gave these Central American marimbas their distinctive character.
In Latin America the name “marimba” refers to every kind of large xylophone with calabashes as resonators of the type originally introduced from Africa.
In Mexico the marimba is still a very common folk instrument and a wide variety of different versions of it are made. Chromatic instruments with 6½ octaves (C3–F8) and an astonishing 79 bars are the largest in the world and are found in Chiapas (Mexico), Guatemala and Costa Rica where they are called the marimba grande. The Chiapas marimba has the form of a table. There are two kinds: the diatonic marimba sencilla and the chromatic marimba doble. Such large instruments are usually played by several marimbists, each player responsible for a particular register, within the confines of which he is obliged to stay. In addition, instruments with three or four octaves are also used. The resonators are often made of bamboo. Marimba ensembles with several instruments are a notable tradition which is still followed today, especially in Mexico City and Chiapas; a group of musicians plays on one marimba or several. In Europe, Japan and the USA marimbas are played almost exclusively by soloists.
Adaptation for the symphony orchestra
The name marimba was eventually applied to the concert and orchestra instrument that had been inspired by the Latin American model. In 1910 the U.S. enterprises Deagan and Leedy began producing Latin American marimbas and adapting them for use in European and American symphony orchestras. Tuned metal tubes replaced the wood resonators, those for the lowest notes being bent into a U shape. The resonators were tuned by rotating metal discs at the bottom end of the tube, mirlitons were abandoned. These new marimbas were first used to accompany Vaudeville theater and comedy shows.
Although the marimba was in constant use in dance bands and light music, it was some time before it was given important parts to play in the orchestra. It was not until 1947 that the marimba suddenly burst on the scene as a serious instrument in the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone by the French composer Darius Milhaud. A new playing technique had been introduced, namely the use of four mallets, which made it possible to play chords, and this innovation received a correspondingly enthusiastic reception. In the second half of the 20th century the marimba’s range of tasks in ensembles and the full orchestra was expanded more and more. Composers such as Leoš Janáček (Jenufa), Carl Orff (Antigonae), Karl Amadeus Hartmann in his symphonies, Hans Werner Henze (Elegie) and Pierre Boulez (Le marteau sans maître) entrusted the marimba with new and extremely challenging tasks. At the same time the instrument’s solo repertoire was growing, too.