Each week, Daily Bruin A&E will explore the instruments of the World Musical Instrument Collection and their performers that all contribute to the musical landscape of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. This week, we highlight the Guatemalan marimba, a row of wooden bars that are hit with mallets to produce a resonant, percussive sound.
Graduate student in ethnomusicology Logan Clark returned to San Cristóbal Verapaz, a small Mayan town in Guatemala, with an open mind. She was looking to find something – anything – that would help center her graduate topic of research on Mayan music.
She sat in a park to watch a St. Christopher’s Day parade pass by. Dancers wore colonial Spanish soldier costumes and were dressed like jaguars and deer. But Clark’s attention was diverted to the familiar sound of a marimba wafting through the air.
She realized that the marimba, held by two people and played by three others, was a lead she should pursue for her research. Clark followed the performers, hoping she would find something to help uncover the marimba’s role in Mayan music and culture.
Clark first encountered the marimba tradition several years before, when she volunteered at a local museum in San Cristóbal Verapaz.
There, she interviewed many people from the community who were involved with the arts. The marimba kept cropping up in their stories, particularly since the town was home to a marimba factory.
Every Sunday, marimba groups performed melodies outside the town hall. The groups were often made up of families, since the tradition of marimba playing is passed down from father to son, or grandfather to grandson.
“The kids often start so young that they can’t reach the (marimba) keys,” Clark said. “They stand on milk crates so they can reach.”
The Guatemalan marimba, originating from Mayan culture, consists of a set of wooden bars that the player hits with wooden mallets to produce resonant sounds.
Mayan marimba players, Clark said, often refer to the instrument as a living being and to its sound as crying or mourning.
“(The sound) affects you physically,” said Clark. “When you walk into a room, the sound blows through your body and brings you back to Guatemala.”
In San Cristóbal Verapaz, as Clark watched the parade, a new dance began, accompanied by the marimba. Clark began to see the way Mayan music helped the population retain its sense of identity.
“There’s a lot of power in being confident and self-actualized in identity,” Clark said. “Arts, music and language all help to strengthen that.”
– Erin Nyren