It seems in Africa size matters when seeing Zachariah Mhaladi build the percussive musical instrument, the Marimba. Tapping on innocence suggests he might be erring because the tubular resonators hanging under the wooden bars are different in size. From one end of the instrument to the other, they make a row starting with the smallest size to largest.
To give the mind a rest, Mhaladi explains that he deliberately crafted it that way. In fact, it’s a way of differentiating keys that the instrument should produce. Each size plays its own role of giving out a specific pitch as determined by the tubular or gourd resonator.
In his studio in Thapong Visual Arts Centre, Mhaladi makes two versions of the instrument. One comprises of plastic water pipes resonators and the other, fiberglass resonators. Water pipe resonators produce tenor or soprano sound. The fiberglass resonators – which are bigger and deeply hollowed – produce base or baritone. To make the marimba begins with a metal frame before sticking resonators.
“I make frames using metal rods. Some frames are foldable,” he says.
To work with fiberglass, Mhaladi makes moulds with soil and spread fiberglass over and wait for it to dry up. Then he hollows the fiberglass mould by emptying the soil, allowing air in. After harnessing wooden bars to the frame, and resonators underneath, he can test the instrument. When each of the wooden bars is hit, the sound goes into the hollow tubular resonator and echoes back out with a vibration that has been amplified by the space and shape, creating rich texture that the closest ear can enjoy.
The marimba that Mhaladi makes is not necessarily in its original status. The original marimba is made of wood. Today even the frames are made of metal. The people who love history prefer the marimba raw and uncut, something very hard to achieve.
By some means, only in Guatemala can one find original marimbas made from hormigo tree, which grows only in the forests of Guatemala. That’s what makes the place unique in reference to marimba making. The country even declared marimba its national instrument in 1978. A monument was erected in Quetzaltenango (the second most popular city in Guatemala) to celebrate the occasion. The instrument was also declared a Guatemalan national symbol in 1999.
“A lot of people prefer it in its original status,” Mhaladi notes. And this is something hard to achieve, given the controversy surrounding the origins of the marimba.
Just like many instruments created over the years and fitting profiles of the creators – giving melodies that convey stories with peculiarity to their regions – the marimba is one of the many that came along. Sadly there’s no clear story about its origins. In fact, the Marimba’s origin is steeped in controversy. It is brought forward in more than one conviction.
It can be traced to South East Asia, West Africa and Central and South America. One finding credits the Mayan people as the original creators and developers of the instrument. Throughout its development, the marimba and the Mayan people have been inseparable in between periods of rituals.
Despite being considered a symbol of Guatemalan culture, the marimba is their source of struggle. Even the declaration of marimba as a national symbol occurred during a period of genocide against the Mayan people. Many Ladinos (non-indigenous Guatemalans) contest the contribution of the Mayans to the modern chromatic marimba. The controversy over the marimba’s origins and heritage continues to be a struggle for identity and power in Guatemala today.
Some say it originates in Africa. This is amplified by assumption that even its name is believed to come from Bantu language; while others amplify that by suggesting it was the name of an African goddess.
One theory suggests that the marimba traces its origins to West Africa and was brought to Guatemala by African slaves in 1595. And others suggest that it was first developed in Indochina (Southeast Asia) before it was introduced to Africa and then Central and South America.
Mhaladi falls for the African version though he won’t pick the country. “It’s an African version of Piano,” he says. He says despite its unsung status, the instrument can be kept in the house like any loveable music instrument to be observed, honoured and or played as a romantic tool.
He also adds that it can produce music that can sell records, not just acting as a showcase on culture days. However, he picks Zimbabwe as the country where he saw people play the instrument from their souls.
“Their response is rigid…they play with passion in Zim,” he says.
It is said the marimba was originally played at the community ceremonies and celebrations of the indigenous people of Guatemala. During that time, the marimba was associated with offensive sexual matters and drunkenness because of its association with the Mayan people and their “out of the ordinary religious” rituals. However, Catholic evangelists eventually incorporated the marimba into their ceremonies to lend credence to their religion.
As the Catholic Church spread all over the world, it landed on people like Mhaladi.
He had his first taste of the instrument at church in Mahalapye where he was born. “I learnt how to play Marimba at Church. I’m a Catholic. Then my father brought home Setinkane, which I also learnt how to play,” he says. But it was Segaba (or Segankure) which fascinated him most after Marimba.
The presence of all these instruments raised his musical passion. Then, as he grew into an adult, he started attending music workshops to expand his musical knowledge. Then time came to get involved. He started buying The Marimba in Zimbabwe and selling in Botswana.
Zimbabwe was far and the whole transactions were tiring. He started manufacturing on his own. He started crafting in 2003. Individuals, schools and the government are his clients and the business is not bad. The country is also conducive for him. He teaches how to play marimba and sells it.
“The business is promising but not there yet,” he says. He is not yet set and to be can only be identified by how things turn out to be. “To say I’m set is to have partners, like employees who come here at 9 and knock off at 5,” he adds.
The instrument is the rhythm of many nations and today various versions of the marimba are played in the United States, the African nations of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the Latin American countries of Cuba, Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru. However, it is believed nowhere is the marimba more celebrated and central to the identity of its people than in Guatemala.
In Botswana the instrument is popular in private schools and the Catholic Church. Mhaladi made it his area of keeping the instrument alive. Thus far, he says there is support from different people, in different forms. Some buy the products and pass on the word to their communities while others encourage him with words.
His manufacturing doesn’t end with the marimba only. He also makes Segaba, Setinkane, Djembe drums and Timbila. Taking the entire instrument as if inspired by the first president Sir Seretse Khama, Mhaladi denotes/reiterates “Tshaba e senang ngwao, the company is to keep these instruments alive.”