The Magic of the Mexican Marimba

Much more than a musical instrument, the marimba in Mexico is a cultural symbol woven into the fabric of everyday life in the state of Chiapas. It is indeed difficult to walk down any street within the state without hearing las maderas que cantan or what Chiapans affectionately call "the wood that sings." Chiapas is one of Mexico's most isolated and exotic states, which only adds resonance to the combination of reality and legend that surrounds the marimba, its music, and the people who play the instrument.

At first glance, a North American audience sees what they think is a sort of xylophone--and they are right! The marimba is a type of xylophone. There are two most obvious differences--aside from instrument materials/construction and appearance--between the Mexican marimba tradition and the "concert marimba" tradition that most Norte Americanos are familiar with. The first is that the Mexican tradition most always has several musicians performing on a single instrument, whereas the concert tradition usually involves a single solo performer. The second difference is the very distinctive "buzz" that is an integral part of the sound of the Mexican instrument, and that is lacking on the concert version of the marimba.

Eclectic is perhaps the best term with which one would describe the repertoire of the marimba in Mexico. Groups will literally perform any musical work. The repertoire will vary, according to the specific function, as well as the geographic location within the state of Chiapas. The music for Catholic masses and weddings, Mexican favorites, jazz, and the great works from the "classical" genre are all considered fair game. With few symphonic or chamber groups, and a limited number of pianos in Chiapas, the "Mexican Piano" takes on the role of caretaker of the western European classical music tradition, where groups will play transcriptions ranging from entire movements of Beethoven symphonies, to the piano works of Chopin. In most settings, popular songs from all of Mexico and traditional regional works from Chiapas are performed. At fiestas, the marimba is always an invited guest. The Mexican marimba ensemble is nothing short of a visually captivating musical feast for the senses!!!

-From Marimba Yajalón performance notes by Dr. Laurence Kaptain,
Edited by John Currey--Director, Marimba Sol de Chiapas.




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