Colombia works to keep marimba traditions alive

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The performing style of the man Angel Marino calls the greatest marimba player ever may help explain why the instrument is so obscure outside the villages along Colombia’s Pacific Coast mangroves.

“He only played after dark and usually naked,” Marino said.

Marino, a virtuoso player of the xylophone-like instrument, said that until recently marimba masters kept it hidden from outsiders to preserve its mystical power to drive away evil spirits.

The last time the marimba was in the international spotlight, Brian Jones was playing it on the Rolling Stones hit “Under My Thumb.” But that may be about to change.

UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural and educational arm, this month added Colombian marimba to its list of customs and practices that constitute mankind’s “intangible cultural heritage.” The designation has been given around the world, to falconry in Jordan and masked dances in Bhutan, often because they are either under-recognized or in danger of extinction.


In Colombia, the marimba is at the heart of what’s known here as the “Music of the Pacific.”

As Marino sang about the piangueras, Afro-Colombian women who dig clams in the coastal estuaries, he hammered out a festive yet melancholic melody on his 30-key marimba using two rubber tipped mallets. Four musicians accompanied him on cununos, or drums, and guasas, a hollow tree branch with seeds inside that produces a rasping sound when shaken. Four singers acted as his respondadoras, or chorus.

Marino made his marimba himself with palm wood and bamboo. Its design, the forerunner to the vibraphone made famous by Lionel Hampton and the celesta played in symphony orchestras, originated in Africa and was brought to Colombia by slaves shipped here to build Spanish fortifications and work the cane fields.

“I learned to play just watching. Music was continuous in my town,” the 33-year-old Marino said. “But it wasn’t enough. I had to make them.”

Although marimbas and other variants are also played in Mexico, Central America, Ecuador and Brazil, the U.N. singled out the Colombian marimba for distinction, Bogota musicologist Egberto Bermudez noted.

Other Colombian musical forms such as vallenato and the cumbia, which also trace back to African forebears, have become known the world over thanks to Colombian pop stars such as Shakira, Juanes and Carlos Vives. But marimba music is still somewhat in the shadows, Bermudez said.

He said the music has been marginalized much the same as the Afro-Colombians who play it. They eke out an existence in the coastal mangrove swamps that colonials and white elites had no interest in inhabiting.


“It says a lot about the tenacity and the strengths of the traditions that marimba has survived,” Bermudez said.

The instrument has an important place in Afro-Colombian culture; Marino plays as often at births and funerals as at dance parties. Marimba is a cohesive social custom among Afro communities, said Jorge Franco, an official with Colombia’s Culture Ministry

But as increasing numbers of Afro-Colombians flee the region to escape forced recruitment by leftist rebels and the violence of drug gangs who dominate much of the coastal areas, Franco sees a renewed threat.

“The social order in this region is very delicate and in jeopardy,” he said. “There is also the invasion of mass media to these areas that were once almost inaccessible. Public taste in these rural communities is as subject to standardization by the mass market as any other.”

For that reason, Franco’s ministry for the last two years has made an effort to preserve and promote marimba by adding marimba classes in the region’s schools and by holding seminars where musicians are taught to promote themselves. The UNESCO designation has given that effort a huge boost.

“We want Colombians to value what is theirs,” Franco said

Over the weekend, Marino and 40 other marimba masters gathered in Tumaco to share ideas and record demo tapes at a government-sponsored seminar.


Anita Hernandez, a 78-year-old singer who has tasted fleeting moments of success with trips to France and Washington, insisted her music would survive.

“Why? Because marimba smells of Colombia and all its pleasures,” Hernandez said. “It’s happiness, sadness, it’s life.”

Kraul is a special correspondent.