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Encounter with a Marimba

Our continuing series, in which an ordinary, unassuming (and unsuspecting) guy tries to play a musical instrument or dance a few ballet steps. This time, Fred Rooks tries a few bonks on the exotic percussion instrument known as a marimba … and in the end, actually makes some music. -MM.

Mr Rooks has a question ...

When I was first told that I would be having a lesson on a marimba, I didn’t know how to react. It conjured up an awesome image of some sort of weird F1 hybrid involving my wife Marie and a black mamba. I soon discovered (to my relief) that the marimba was indeed a result of inter-continental breeding, but not one that involved any intimate inter-species relations. It is, of course, a relatively harmless musical instrument, although that doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome.

My teacher this time was Markéta Mazourová, who is a highly accomplished and very busy musician, percussionist, and composer. Despite this, she found the time (and patience) to introduce me to her marimba. She might be young, but has rather a lot behind her, with a whole number of awards to her name. These include first place as representative of the Czech Republic in the Expo Benelux International Song and Cultural Festival in the years 2000, 2002, and 2004.

Playing a marimba certainly keeps you on your toes.

Her compositions have been performed at international festivals in countries as diverse as Egypt, Romania, Malta, Bulgaria, and the US. Her compositions and performances have been released on CDs by labels such as Popron and Sony, and she has composed incidental music for Czech Television, Czech Radio, and musical theatre. And if that is not enough, she has also written instructional pieces for percussion, piano, and flute.

Maybe what is most impressive about Ms Mazourová, however, is that as a composer she is playing her part in keeping music alive. Surely, without development and innovation no music genre can survive. That also applies to musical instruments and the marimba is the perfect example of this.

Markéta began by explaining a little about marimba evolution. It all started somewhere in the south of Africa with simple wooden bars people hung from their necks and beat with sticks to accompany tribal dances. You can’t say much positive about the slave trade, but at least it brought the magical African sense for rhythm and tones to places like Central America. And it was here that what used to be a primitive percussion instrument began to evolve into the large and sophisticated marimba.

Unfortunately, today’s slaves, including most people in the Czech Republic, could hardly afford a marimba, as a new one costs about the same as three average Skoda cars. I wouldn’t dare to question the precision involved in producing Skoda cars, but that involved in making a marimba goes beyond doubt. And what is more, not even a Rolls Royce can boast of having such precisely-made rosewood bars. And can you tell me what sort of sporty-looking stainless steel exhaust can compete with the marimba’s impressive (and shiny) resonators?

Coming to grips with the marimba.

As I very soon learned from Markéta, you have to be fit to play a marimba. It is rather long, so an averagecomposition will keep you on your toes as you dance up and down the room bashing the bars with your mallets. Markéta also showed me how to play with two mallets in each hand (for those that can’t count that means a total of four mallets). For a skilled percussionist it is certainly no problem. However, opening and closing my hands like an oversized crab while trying to wield four mallets proved too much of a strain for me.

Luckily, the marimba has the same tuning as a piano (which I also can’t play), so at least I was able to make a few sounds that were in tune.

Photo Credits: Photos and video: Miroslav Setnička

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