Children playing marimbas

Six Reasons Why Marimbas Will Transform Your School

The first time I heard marimbas was at Victoria Falls, in about 1980.

Sitting under the trees in this iconic place, I was an instant convert to the marimba’s warm, mellifluous sound. Anyone (myself included) enjoying the gorgeous Afro-inspired music that evening might have thought that this indigenous African instrument had a long history in the region. Yet the marimba ensembles, comprising different sized instruments that take different musical roles, like ‘soprano’, ‘tenor’, and ‘bass’, were developed in Bulawayo towards the end of the 1950s at Kwanongoma College. Inspired by several African xylophone traditions, for example, the magnificent Chopi Xylophones in Mozambique, the early marimba ensembles were infused with the logic of choral music’s different parts.

It is no exaggeration to say that the growth in the use of marimbas in South African schools over the last 25 years has been phenomenal. One by one, schools have figured out what an amazing tool they are for learning, team building, morale boosting, or indeed, for marketing. When pondering the reasons for this, I find myself reflecting on the principles of music making in sub-Saharan Africa – and how they underpin the marimba phenomenon.

Marimbas are accessible

To play them, you need gross, rather than fine, motor skills. This means that young musicians do not need three or four years of lessons before they build enough skill to play in a group. Music is quick to learn because the parts are simple and can be learned aurally. (There’s no need for hours of music theory). Together, the different marimba parts combine to produce something bigger than the individual parts combined.

Marimbas are inclusive

Because they are accessible, anyone can play – learners of all ages and abilities can be taught a manageable part and play it within a supportive group setting. In my experience, a group of beginners can be playing a tune together within a 40-minute lesson. Parts can be simplified when beginners are struggling, and quick learners can take on the more difficult parts. Playing together like this really levels the playing field in a way that seldom happens in schooling. How many adults regret not learning to play an instrument, or worse, have dark memories of unhappy music lessons that left them convinced of their lack of ability? These feelings of inadequacy can be established very early in life, and it has been immensely satisfying as a marimba teacher to watch learners go from ‘I can’t do music,’ to – ‘Hey, I can do this!’

Marimbas are communal

Part of the fun of playing marimbas is that it is always in the context of a group. No lonely solo practice on your own while your friends are out having fun. We know that social learning is highly motivating, and nowhere is this more true than in the music room. Learning music in a social context is highly effective, especially where fun is the operative word. This brings me to my next point.

Marimbas are empowering

Because they are accessible, inclusive and communal, the result is a huge amount of fun. Kids who have never thought of themselves as musical find themselves playing together with their peers, others who struggle socially, with their academics, or on the sports field, might find they learn music fast and can help others. The marimba band is a perfect place for learners to work out their favourite songs and to teach each other.

Marimbas are cool

Being percussive instruments, they are at their best playing rhythmic music with a strong beat. Also, pop music adapts perfectly to these percussive instruments and this is great because school goers are far more motivated to learn music that they listen to every day. Marimbas’ natural volume means they are fantastic for performances. Their sound easily fills a big hall, or projects in an outside space. That is one of the reasons so many schools have bands that frequently perform both within the school and outside it. After all, what marketing department can resist happy children playing a groovy tune?

Marimbas in the South African classroom

Marimbas are educative

Before I get ahead of myself – education is at the core of what we do in schools. The educational potential of marimbas includes all of the above, but they also lend themselves to sound musical pedagogy. They are a good alternative to traditional classroom instruments like Orff Xylophones, as their gutsy sound gives positive feedback to the players and students feel like they are playing ‘real’ music, not ‘school’ music. The simple parts that beginners can manage, provide a starting point from which learners can go on to playing fully chromatic instruments. Marimbas are great for coordination, crossing the mid-line, developing memory, and aural skills. They also encourage cooperation because band members must learn to give others space, wait their turn and understand what it means to be in a team.

All these features form the fundamentals of African ‘musicking’ which focuses on inclusive, communal playing of beat-driven music. Because the instruments lend themselves to a musical philosophy that is rooted in Africa, they can be seen as an ideal way to diversify schools’ cultural programmes. First prize is to have enough instruments (and an appropriate venue) to use for general creative arts classes. However, a set of three of four instruments is a good starting point to augment classroom work or to get an extra-curricular band up and running. An investment in a set of marimbas is an investment in scores of pupils: because different learners can play the instruments in the course of the week and all benefit from them. It is not a matter of each learner needing an exclusive, and often expensive, instrument on which to practice.

African Musical Instruments – proud to support the music

African Musical Instruments (AMI), located in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, has been making marimbas since it took over ‘Power Marimbas’ in 1999. AMI has made several improvements to the instruments’ design. Part of what sets the AMI instruments apart, is their tuning, a job meticulously done by Patrick Marthinus. The kiaat notes are shaped to the correct size, then tuned by shaving wood off the underside – in the middle to make the note lower, and on each end of the note to make it higher. Kiaat is a tone wood chosen for its natural resonance. Amplifying that resonance is the box-shaped resonator below the note. It’s all a matter of physics! Good quality plywood is used for the box resonators, but an alternative is PVC pipe, a product that makes the marimbas more economical, and a little quieter (kinder to music teachers’ ears!). This can be useful if marimbas are played in a smallish room, as their natural high volume – along with enthusiastic young players – can be hard to control.

Supporting the beautiful wooden keyboards, the AMI marimbas have steel frames which make them very sturdy and long lasting. Because the legs fold down against the keyboards, they are easy to transport. (Making transportation easier still is the option of casters on the AMI instruments.) Transportability is a big deal for bands that perform regularly in different venues. Brian Chatsunda and Mlungisi Booi share in the marimba manufacture, turning their hand to cutting and preparing wood, painting frames, finishing notes and assembling the instruments when all the components are completed. The finished instruments stay in the factory for a few weeks to settle before their tuning is rechecked and they are packed up and dispatched.

AMI is all over the world

Where in the world are AMI’s marimbas? Starting in Zimbabwe, marimba sets have found their way around the world, notably to the West coast of North America (USA and Canada), and to Australia and New Zealand. Most of AMI’s marimba sets are sold within South Africa, but there are regular orders from South African teachers who have moved all over the globe. Most recently, marimbas have gone to Manitoba, Canada, but our sets can also be found in Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Spain and beyond.

Readers may be familiar with school marimba groups and might have seen bands performing across the country, for instance on game farms, or at the Cape Town Waterfront. The educational and community-building power of marimbas is evidenced in their popularity amongst non-governmental organisations projects, the South African Defence Force, prisons, university music departments, and church groups. At the Makhanda cathedral, the marimba band accompanies the sung mass each Sunday. Every week in some parts of the country, facilitators from the Field Band Foundation drive from one disadvantaged school or youth club to another with a bakkie full of marimbas. Groups commonly use the marimbas to accompany singing and others incorporate them into orchestras.

Schools performing with African muscial instruments

Kalimbas: African instruments for South African education

AMI started in 1954, and was the first manufacturer of factory-made kalimbas. Variations of this instrument are found all over Africa, and go by various names, for example kalimba, mbira or sanza. The AMI Treble Kalimba was modelled primarily on the karimba instruments from Malawi/Mozambique. On the AMI instruments, the tuning was established in the scale of G major; with a key layout in which the rising notes of the scale are played with alternating thumbs. Since then, kalimbas have gone global – the natural appeal of their distinctive bell-like sound led to their quick adoption by international musicians of all kinds. Not only are they played all over the world, but there are now kalimba manufacturers across the globe. At AMI, Vuyolwethu Ntleki, Valentino Bosch and Luke Loutz make the handmade instruments that make up the kalimba range.

The international popularity of the kalimba means that almost all of AMI’s kalimbas are exported. There is an opportunity here that South African schools should not miss, however. The kalimba is perfectly suited for classroom work and here are some reasons why schools should consider introducing it to their music or creative arts programmes.

AMI Kalimbas are available in different formats – from simple eight-note instruments with pentatonic and diatonic scales suitable for primary learners – to fully chromatic instruments that challenge the musically competent. The different formats allow for learning pathways that have the potential for progression. Teachers can start with the simplest tunes and musical patterns, but can also take students on a journey that will develop their musical skill and understanding.

The instruments are held with both hands and played primarily with the thumbs, but the other fingers also play a role. Thus they require learners to develop equal dexterity in both hands, a key activity for an agile brain. They are an ideal way to develop the non-dominant hand.

Kalimbas are well suited to playing melodies, that is, with just one note played at a time, but a single performer can also play harmony notes to accompany the melody. In a classroom situation, different parts could be given to different groups of students. Kalimbas’ potential for harmony extends their educative potential. In fact, the kalimba is fairly unique insofar as it is relatively simple to play, yet it has the potential for both melody and harmony. Other harmony instruments like the guitar and the piano, although common in schools, are fairly complex in comparison.

Kalimbas are good alternative instruments for that ubiquitous classroom instrument – the recorder. Call me a wimp, but in my three decades of classroom teaching, I never quite had the stomach for a classroom full of recorders. Kalimbas have a sweeter tone and hold their tuning well (provided they are not bashed about). So long as they are in tune to start with, they do not present the tuning challenges of recorders which rely on breath control to be well tuned. Recorders have been the go-to instrument for programmes that aim to teach music literacy because they are affordable and relatively simple to play. Kalimbas offer a more expensive, but less likely-to-give-you-a-nervous-breakdown option for teaching music literacy.

Transformative potential

I have been describing how kalimbas can be used in conventional school music programmes. But the transformative potential of this uniquely African instrument has been discovered by others too. John Roff, for example, is a nature guide with a difference, based in KwaZulu-Natal.

He sees the kalimba as an ideal instrument for students to forget their preconceived ideas about their own ‘musicality’ because it is unconventional. Its simplicity, along with its lovely timbre, draws learners in, and they feel safe to experiment. Using AMI instruments with African tuning, introduces alternative scales and ways of thinking about music.

Roff says, ‘As an educator, I am committed to getting potential out of children, and the kalimba is a welcoming instrument that encourages exploration and creativity.’ On a bush walk he will pull one out of his backpack and hand it to a young hiker with the instruction to ‘have a go’. John recounts how the sound and the improvisatory play enriches the experience students have in nature.

African instruments have deep potential for bringing change to education. They can fill roles formerly reserved for conventional western instruments, but they have something more powerful: they are full of possibility for inclusion, creativity and new ways of making music together. But these qualities are not new at all! They have been practiced in African for centuries.