N

ame the Guatemala national symbols: the flag; the Quetzal bird; the Ceiba tree; the Monja Blanca flower; and one more, let’s see…

The Marimba. It was declared the national instrument in 1978, and in its honor a monument was erected in Quetzaltenango. In January 1999, by Decree 31-99, the Congress of the Republic declared the marimba a national symbol for its historic and cultural value and Guatemalan tradition. Quoting Prensa Libre, “For a brief moment, political differences were put aside, and they celebrated together.”

The politicians may have agreed for a moment, but fierce, passionate debate over the mysterious origin of the marimba goes on as it has for centuries. Ethnologists, folklorists, musicologists, anthropologists and linguists of world-renown vehemently defend their positions, using terms such as ‘undoubtedly,’ ‘for certain,’ ‘well-researched’ and ‘inexcusable fantasy,’ the last, of course, referring to the position of an opponent. This is no place for a novice, and this writer will not venture to form an opinion on the matter.

According to Celso Lara Figueroa, director of the Center of Folkloric Studies at the University of San Carlos, the marimba came from Indochina, was developed in Africa and brought to Guatemala by slaves in 1595. Some claim more specifically that it came to Chiapas (then part of Guatemala) in 1545 with a particular slave of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, who alone would have had the kindness to allow slaves to bring their music along to comfort them. Others accuse the Spanish conquerors of having destroyed evidence of the indigenous marimba, saying the Africans discovered it already here, made it their own and renamed it. And so it goes on and on. Whatever its origin, the marimba became popular all over the world, but nowhere so loved as in Guatemala. Virtually no ceremony or celebration anywhere in the country goes on without it, and in no other place has the instrument reached the pedestal of a national symbol. The availability of good wood in Guatemala made the development of the marimba easy. The keys are made of wood from the hormigo tree, so named because it is always filled with ants, attracted by the sweetness of the wood. The hormigo, with ‘wood that sings,’ is both original and unique to Guatemala. Although the ceiba tree was made a national symbol in 1955, some felt that had been a mistake and tried to have the symbol changed to the hormigo tree, partly due to the importance and identify that the marimba had established with Guatemala.

In colonial times the marimba was associated with what were considered pagan religious ceremonies. But Catholic evangelists, hoping to make the new religion more attractive, allowed marimba music to be played at certain celebrations. In turn the natives were required to play at civic ceremonies, showing submission to the sovereign. The Spaniards enjoyed the richness that native customs brought to the ceremonies and eventually invited marimba groups to play at baptisms and weddings. Nonetheless, in 1593 a prohibition was written against certain dances of the natives and the instruments they used because of associated drunkenness. That prejudice, and debate, continues to this day in some religious groups, although others say the consumption of alcoholic beverages has always been present at civic and religious festivities of all social levels, and the marimba is not to be blamed. Obviously, the marimba survived. Agustín Mencos Franco wrote in La Música en Guatemala (July 1900) that the marimba was part of the orchestra of the Cathedral of Santiago de Guatemala (now La Antigua). It may have been added as early as the beginning of the 17th century, but the first reliable record of the marimba in colonial times is in the record of the inauguration celebration of the reconstructed cathedral in 1680.

The talent of playing marimba was passed down from generation to generation, from fathers to sons. It continued to be an instrument of the indigenous people or those without social rank. Even though in 1822 Felix Mendelssohn, upon hearing a group of Polish Jews playing marimba, was amazed at what could be done with a few simple sticks, there were always those who made the distinction between ‘lovers of good music’ and ‘devotees of the marimba.’ Marimba never could compete with an orchestra or chamber group, and music critics relegated it to second place.

Still, in 1943 Guatemalans were distraught to hear music of their beloved marimba coming by radio from Berlin as part of Nazi propaganda programming. During that same time, the marimba reached its high point of popularity in the U.S., when it became an important part of jazz and dance orchestras, such as that of Glenn Miller. The marimba has been manufactured in the U.S. since 1910, now with rosewood keys and brass or aluminum tubes, quite different from the early rough-hewn instruments with hollowed out gourds for resonance boxes.

Certainly the marimba has achieved international status. As part of the 2005 Japanese Cultural Festival in La Antigua, the Fine Arts marimba teamed with players of the Japanese harp, which has a 2,000-year history.

But over the years, with new music and changing customs, the marimba has struggled for prestige. In 1998, by Government Agreement 556-98, the Concert Marimba of the Presidency of the Republic was formed for the rescue and promotion of the Guatemalan marimba, directed at all sectors of national and international society and playing contemporary as well as traditional music. It followed other groups established to dignify the marimba and marimbists since 1970, those of ministries of fine arts, culture and tourism. Less formal groups are also being formed across the country, youth that now includes girls and young women, to keep the marimba alive. The latest height was reached in August 2005, when construction began for the National Institute of the Marimba at the Cultural Center Miguel Ángel Asturias in Guatemala City. It will house the National School of Marimba, the Center of Marimba Research, the National Marimba Museum and the official seat of the Fine Arts marimba construction workshop. Later plans include radio and television programming. The project is funded by the Ministry of Culture and Sports and supported by an arm of the United Nations. And so we salute the marimba. What better testimonial than that of an Antigua resident who wakes up to marimba music aired early morning on weekdays: “Because of the marimba, I always start the day feeling positive.”

Among the many words of tribute written to the marimba are those of César Pineda del Valle in his Anthology of the Marimba in America (1994), to whom is owed the source (1994), to whom is owed the source of much of this information:

"Marimba, marimba of my land; 
marimba that sings a hymn of love.

Marimba, marimba of my joys;
from your keys flows a hymn of peace."

*Author: Joy Houston *Article and photo courtesy of Revue Magazin – www.revuemag.com For more articles on Central America, please click here .