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Marimbulas

The Marimbula

by Michael Sisson, Ph.D.
© 2000 Michael D. Sisson, All Rights Reserved

I. History

Origins

The marimbula, sometimes called the bass kalimba, is a folk instrument of the Caribbean, the creation of African slaves and their descendants. It comes originally from rural Oriente province, at the eastern end of the island of Cuba, and was first observed being played there in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1930s it had made its way to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and other Caribbean islands, to Mexico and as far away as New York City. The Cubans call it mar’mbula (pronounced mah-REAM-boo-lah), and most of the other Caribbean countries have adopted this name or some variant of it: marimba, malimba, manimba, marimbol. In English-speaking Jamaica, however, it's called a "rumba-box." Musicologists refer to the instrument as a "large-box lamellaphone." The word lamellaphone comes from the Latin root lamella, or lamina, meaning "a thin plate or layer" (as in the English word "laminate"), and the Greek phone, meaning "sound." The lamellaphones are a family of musical instruments that produce sound when the player presses and releases the free ends of its lamellae, its "tongues" or keys. The classic lamellaphones are indigenous to Africa, where they take a variety of forms, known by such names as sanza, kisanji, likembe, mbira, mbila, marimba, malimba, and kalimba. In general these instruments are small enough to be held in the hands and played with the thumbs, hence their colloquial name, "thumb-piano."

The true African kalimba and other members of the lamellaphone family have been around for centuries. The earliest written record of their existence is from 1586, but they are certainly much older than that. It is thought that they may have originated as portable versions of marimbas or xylophones. The latter were probably brought to Africa in ancient times from south-east Asia, where similar instruments are found today in the gamelan orchestras of Java and Bali. So although the marimbula of the West Indies is of relatively recent vintage (only 150 years or so old), its origins extend into the distant past, and quite possibly half-way around the world to the East Indies.

While the marimbula is clearly descended from the African lamellaphones, it is set apart from its progenitors by both its size and the way in which it is played. A few large-box types may be found in Africa (the Smithsonian in Washington has one from Nigeria that measures 13 x 7 x 8 inches), but even these are not as large as the typical Caribbean model. And because of its larger size, the marimbula is not played with the thumbs, in the African manner, but with the index and middle fingers together.

More significant than the matter of thumbs vs. fingers is the fact that the original African lamellaphones are melodic and contrapuntal instruments, used singly or in ensembles with other lamellaphones to play a complex, polyphonic music, while the Caribbean marimbula plays only the relatively simple bass lines that provide a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment to the diverse instruments of a folk or commercial dance band. In this way its function corresponds to that of the bass in European music. So although its ancestry is unquestionably African, the marimbula is a product of mestizaje, the mixing of African and Western elements that characterizes much of Caribbean culture.

Early Marimbulas

When the people who first created the marimbula were uprooted from their homelands in Africa and transported across the ocean, they could not carry their musical instruments with them. Unlike European immigrants with their fiddles and their guitars, the Africans brought only their traditions, only what they could carry in their heads. Once they arrived, they began to recreate their musical traditions, using instruments made from whatever local materials were available to them in their new environment. An example is the caj—n, literally "large box," an improvised Afro-Cuban drum made from a discarded wooden packing case. The caj—n is a kind of cousin to the marimbula, which in its earliest days was also made from nothing more elaborate than an old wooden box. The most common form of the marimbula consists of a rectangular box the size and shape of a small suitcase (some even have a luggage-type handle on top), with a sound hole and a row of keys on one of its sides. The player (called the marimbulero) places the instrument on the ground with the keys pointing upward, and sits on its top edge, reaching down to press the keys. The latter can be of metal, wood or bamboo; for many years the preferred material was discarded springs from old wind-up Victrola phonographs, but old clock springs and knife or saw blades have been used, as well as steel strapping from lumber shipments and, in Jamaica, hoops from rum casks. In New York's Spanish Harlem in the 1930s, marimbulas are said to have been made from orange crates and bed springs. There have been many variations on this basic design. On some instruments, hearkening back to their African ancestors, the wooden box is replaced by a large calabash gourd, with a circular slab of wood for a sound board. Other models are designed to rest on the lap, or to hang by straps from the neck, so that the player can stand or walk around while playing (these are used in Carnaval and other types of parades). In Puerto Rico, the box is sometimes made in the shape of a truncated string bass body.

The number of keys also varies from place to place: ten or more in Cuba and Puerto Rico, but only three or four in Haiti and Dominican Republic. Experimental models have been built with over sixty. Where the number of keys is small, the player typically plays them all with one hand, using the other hand to beat out a rhythm on the side of the box, and this percussive rhythm can be as important as the notes produced by the keys. Even when the fingers of both hands are occupied with the keys, the thumbs are sometime used to drum on the top of the instrument.

The Marimbula in Afro-Cuban Music

In its native Cuba, the marimbula is associated with a type of music called son (rhymes with "tone"). Son was originally a country dance-song from rural eastern Cuba, performed by singers with an ensemble of string and percussion instruments that normally included the marimbula. The son came to the capital city of Havana in the early 1900s, and by the early 1920s it had become a major dance craze. Son is what you hear on the CD Buena Vista Social Club (and in the documentary film of the same name). It is to Latin music what the blues is to North American music: just as the blues became the basis for the later development of jazz and rock and roll, so the son was the precursor to the salsa style of the late 1960s and beyond.

The earliest and most basic son ensemble was the terceto, consisting of: marimbula, bong— drums, and tres (a Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings). When the country son moved to the city, maracas, guitar, and claves (hardwood rhythm sticks) were added, creating the sexteto, the classic son group of the early to mid 1920s. (In some of these groups, instead of a marimbula, there was a botija or botijuela, a wind instrument made from an empty earthenware olive oil jar that was played much like the "jug" in American jug bands.) With commercial success, however, came changes in this line-up. Beginning around 1925, the marimbula was replaced by the string bass, and a cornet or trumpet was added to the group, transforming the sexteto into the septeto. It is the septeto sound, with string bass and trumpet, that you hear on Buena Vista Social Club.

The string bass came to be preferred over the marimbula because of its greater volume, range and versatility, its superior ability to provide a harmonic accompaniment to the increasingly complex music that was beginning to be played at that time. Along with these advantages, however, came considerable disadvantages, including the much greater expense required to purchase and maintain a string bass, and its much larger size, which makes it so difficult to transport and vulnerable to accidents. And so the easily portable, inexpensive, and hardy marimbula continued to be played in rural communities and the less prosperous sections of the cities. Sturdy and manageable, it was still the most practical choice for street music and parades (comparsas). For these reasons it has been called the "poor man's string bass."

Beyond the Son

The marimbula spread out from Cuba along with the son. In part this came about thanks to migrant workers from other parts of the Caribbean, who were exposed to the instrument while working on the Cuban sugar plantations, and then created their own versions of it on returning to their home islands. More significant were the professional touring ensembles from Havana, who introduced the son to other Caribbean countries and Mexico, Europe and the United States in the 1920s and 30s. The music that became so popular in the U.S. during that time under the name of "rumba" was in fact not rumba at all, but son.

Outside of Cuba, the marimbula has been used to play both Cuban-style dance music and the local dance musics of the countries in which it has made its home. In the Dominican Republic it plays merengue in a type of ensemble called the conjunto t’pico, which also includes accordion, drum and gŸira (scraper). In Haiti it is used to accompany the dance called mŽringue, and in Puerto Rico it often appears among the musicians who join in Christmastime parrandas or asaltos, roving neighborhood parties that go from house to house playing and singing, eating and drinking. In Jamaica it is sometimes used in Rastafarian ceremonies.

The marimbula experienced a revival In the 1970s, when the folk music movement known as Nueva Canci—n or Nueva Trova ("new song") was sweeping through Latin America. Renewed interest led some Instrument makers to experiment with techniques used in constructing other instruments, such as the internal bracing found in guitars, in an effort to build a better mar’mbula. In recent decades the marimbula has appeared on recordings by musicians ranging from the Cuban roots music group Sierra Maestra to jazz great Herbie Hancock (on his Head Hunters album), from Martin Denny's Exotica to the Seattle Latin jazz combo Sonando.

II. Learning to Play the Marimbula

It's amazingly easy to get the basic sound out of the marimbula. There is no special technique involved: the player simply sits or stands with the free ends of the keys pointed toward him or her, and presses them down with his or her fingersÑnormally the index and middle fingers together. You can also play rhythm on it like a drum. That is really all there is to it. The trick is knowing which notes to play, and when to play them.

The marimbula is not, like its African progenitors, a melodic instrument. While it is certainly possible play simple melodies on the marimbula, its traditional role (and a very important role at that) is to provide a harmonic and rhythmic basis for the group. Harmony is what tells you which notes to play, and rhythm determines when you will play them. Let's begin by looking at each of these two components separately, and then we'll talk about how they interact to produce a good-sounding bass line.

Basic Harmony

The simplest kind of bass line consists of playing just the root note of each of the chords in the tune you are accompanying. If the chord is C, you play a C; if the chord is G, you play G, and so on. Though this approach is elementary in the extreme, it is actually quite effective for playing tunes where the chords change frequently, as when there are consistently two or more chords per measure.

If, however, you are playing a tune in which the same chord is held for a whole measure, or for two or more measures, then rather than repeat the root of the chord over and over, you should alternate the root with its fifth, i.e. the note five notes above (or four notes below, which is the same thing). The most basic kind of chord, called a triad, has three notes: the root, third, and fifth. In a C triad, the root is C, the third is E, and the fifth is G. To play an extended C chord, the marimbula would play C G | C G etc. for as long as the chord is held. If the chord then changes from C to G, you can simply switch to alternating the root and fifth of the G chord, and play G D | G D. Using roots and fifths only, you don't have to be concerned about major vs. minor triads, since the root and fifth are the same for both (it's the third that makes the difference).

A problem that can arise with the marimbula, because of its limited number of keys, is needing to play a chord for which you lack the root or the fifth, or both. To this special marimbula problem, there is a traditional marimbula solution: substitute a neighboring note for the missing one. For example, if you are called on to play a B chord, the root will be B and the fifth F#. If you do not have an F#, but you have an F, you can use the latter in its place. This is because for most people the low bass notes are hard to distinguish clearly, and the marimbula in particular has a tone that tends to be somewhat indistinct with regard to pitch. As a result, the ear will usually accept the substitution without complaint.

In fact, on many of the early recordings of Cuban son groups, the marimbulero plays a stripped-down version of the harmony that does not strictly adhere to the chord changes played by the guitar. In some cases the marimbula merely repeats the notes of a single chord (the tonic) throughout the entire performance. At such times the harmonic function of the bass line is abandoned, and the marimbula becomes a pure rhythm instrument.

Rhythms

There are two fundamental rhythms that form the basis for virtually all the bass lines played by the marimbula. The first is a steady half-notes pulse, with two notes to the bar falling on beats 1 and 3 (in standard 4/4 time)Ðwhat jazz bassists call "two-feel." This is how the marimbula is played in Dominican merengue, and it will work for most types of North American folk music. To relieve the monotony of the continuous half notes, you can add an occasional quarter note on beat 4 of the measure (1 rest 3 4); this is especially effective just before a chord change, as we shall see. (This two-note pattern also works for tunes in 6/8, such as jigs; to adapt it for tunes in 3/4 (waltz time), play a half note on the first beat of each measure, and a shorter quarter note on beat 3: 1 rest 3.)

The other basic rhythm for the marimbula is the clave. This is the rhythm of the bass line in the Cuban son, and in many other forms of Latin music. It is in some New Orleans music too, and through that route it has entered rock and rollÐthe "Bo Diddley" guitar riff is based on it. Because of this, we in the U.S. tend to associate the sound of the clave with commercial pop music, but it is in fact a traditional rhythm from Africa.

Clave is a bouncy, syncopated alternative to the "four-square" feel of straight half notes. Bass instruments (marimbula, string bass, etc.) normally play what is known as the "3-side" of the clave, meaning that there are three notes to the bar, falling on beat 1, the "and" of 2, and 4Ða pattern that is often written as two dotted quarter notes followed by an ordinary quarter note. A common variant, often heard in son, is called "anticipated bass," in which the note on beat 1 is omitted. The best way to understand the clave rhythm is to listen to people playing it. This is relatively easy to do, since virtually any recording of salsa music will have examples of bass lines based on the clave (usually being played on an electric bass). For a more "rootsy" (or in Spanish, t’pico) sound, listen to the string bass of Orlando "Cacha’to" L—pez on the Buena Vista Social Club, or any of the recordings by Cacha’to's uncle Israel "Cachao" L—pez (Master Sessions volumes I and II are excellent).

If you want to hear authentic marimbula as it was played in the early days, you can look for reissues of vintage Cuban recordings, such as the CD Hot Music from Cuba: 1907-1939 (on the Harlequin label), or early recordings of the Sexteto Habanero. Unfortunately, the recording technology of the 1920s and 30s did not reproduce the bass register very well, and the marimbula is often hard to hear. One exception is the 1925 recording of the son "El cangrejito" by the group Terceto Yoy—, which can be heard on the Hot Music CD. Listening to this and other early recordings of the marimbula, what you will find in general is a more rudimentary, somewhat simplified version of the same kinds of bass lines you can hear more clearly on the Buena Vista Social Club and other more recent recordings.

Building Bass Lines

You can play a perfectly acceptable bass line by simply alternating roots and fifths, as described above, but this can begin to sound (and feel) rather mechanical. A better bass line is one that flows smoothly from one chord change to the next, one that forms a kind of counter-melody running along underneath the melody and harmony of the other instruments. The idea is to play a line that is a little more melodic, a sort of "bass song," while still fulfilling your basic rhythmic and harmonic duties. One way to accomplish this is by modifying one or more of the notes leading up to a chord change, so that the bass line moves smoothly to the root of the new chord. To see how this works, let's take as an example a chord progression from C to G, then back to C. This is called a I-V-I progression, and it is very common in folk music. To start with, here is the simple roots-and-fifths bass line for this progression:

C G C

(1) C G | C G | G D | G D | C G | C G

There is nothing wrong with this, but it would sound better if instead you played:

C G C

(2) C G | C D | G D | G D | C G | C G

The D in the second measure does a better job of moving the bass line along because it is the fifth of the following G chord, and the fifth has a natural tendency to go to the root. But, you might object, the chord in the second measure is still C, and that D is not the root or the fifth of the C chordÐin fact, it's not in the C chord at all. This is true: in relation to the C chord, D is the second (often called the ninth, which is the same thing an octave higher), and while D is not one of the three chord-tones of the C triad, it doesn't clash with them either. D makes a good choice for a transitional note because it works in both contexts, that of the old chord (C) and that of the new chord (G).

Now let's look at the second chord change in this progression, from G back to C (V-I). In example 2 above, the last note before the change is D, which as we have just seen is both the fifth of G and the second of C. D and C are adjacent tones in the scale, a single step apart, and moving from D to C is an example of what is called step-wise motion. Step-wise motion to the new root is another good way of making your bass line flow more smoothly. It's not as strong a cadence as the fifth-to-root motion described above, but it can be very effective none the less.

Suppose, though, that you want to give more drive to the return from G to C. You can add an extra G (the fifth of C) as a quarter note on beat 4, between the D and the C:

(3) C G | C D | G D | G DG | C G | C G

I've written DG together in this way to indicate that these two are played as quarter notes, i.e. twice as fast as the other notes. The rhythm in the fourth measure of example (3) goes: 1 rest 3 4. Putting in the extra note (G) adds impetus to the harmonic movement, while keeping up the pattern of alternating roots and fifthsÐyou don't have to play the G twice in one measure to get a strong cadence. And having two quarter notes in place of the usual half note also adds rhythmic variety. Another common chord progression is I-IV-V-I, or, in the key of C, C F G C. Here is a bass line:

C F G C

(4) C G | C GC | F C | F D | G D | G DG | C G | C G

There are a couple of things to notice about this bass line. One is the D at the end of measure 4, which is the fifth of the G in the next measure. In relation to the F chord, D is the sixth, and the sixth is like the second (ninth) in that it is not a chord tone, but neither it is it dissonant with the chord, so it makes a good transition note. The other thing to notice is that the notes used in the I-IV progression follow the same pattern as those used for V-I, and the converse is also true, that the notes for IV-I follow the same pattern as I-V. This is because the distance between the roots of the chords is the same. Going from G to C is a V-I progression in the key of C, and at the same time I-IV in the key of G. The basic patterns you use for one kind of progression can often be recycled for use in other harmonic contexts.

Some Guidelines for Constructing Bass Lines:

Start with the root of each chord, and alternate that with the fifth. If you are playing a rhythm that requires three notes per measure, such as the clave, use the root, fifth and octave (or repeat the root again, if your instrument's range doesn't include the octave).

Avoid repeating the same note twice in a row. This is not a hard and fast rule, but alternating different notes will generally give you better results.

When moving from one chord to another, think of the last note of the old chord as a transitional note that helps make a smooth progression to the new chord.

The transition note can be either the fifth or the second of the new chord (the one towards which you are moving). In relation to the old chord (the one you are about to leave) it can be any one of the chord tones (root, fifth, or third), or the second or the sixth.

Keep in mind that the marimbula is a simple instrument, and it sounds best when played in a simple manner. Your role is to be there for the group with the right note at precisely the right time.

All this may seem rather complicated and technical, especially if you have not played a bass instrument before. When you are starting to learn the marimbula, it will help to sit down and write out the bass line to a tune in advance, working out the various relationships between chord and non-chord tones on paper before you actually try to play it. After you have done this for a while, you will probably find that it starts to come automatically, and you won't have to think too hard about it. You'll just hear the sound in your head and play it. Once you have mastered the basics, experiment with different patterns of notes and different rhythms. Listen to bass lines played by other instruments, and try to copy them. Use your ear to decide what kind of sound you like, and begin to develop your own personal style based on what sounds good to you.

Sample Bass Lines for the Marimbula

Below are some suggested bass lines for the most common harmonic progressions. They are written out in four common keys, but you can transpose the patterns into other keys too. Try playing them in different rhythms, in 4/4, 3/4, and clave. For the Latin-style "anticipated bass," play the root of the new chord one beat ahead of where it would normally be, on beat 4 of the measure before the change.

Remember that portions of these bass lines can be recycled for use with other chord progressions. For instance, the pattern suggested for moving from IV to V in the I-IV-V-I progression can be used for any pair of chords that are one step apart, e.g. the I-flat VII-I progression found in many "modal" fiddle tunes. Finally, there is nothing "carved in stone" about any of these bass linesÐthey are merely offered as suggestions to help you get started playing the marimbula.

I-V-I
C (C G C) C G | C D | G D | G DG | C G | C G
G (G D G) G D | G A | D A | D AD | G D | G D
D (D A D) D A | D E | A E | A EA | D A | D A
A (A E A) A E | A B | E B | E BE | A E | A E

I-IV-I
C (C F C) C G | C GC | F C | F G | C G | C G
G (G C G) G D | G DG | C G | C D | G D | G D
D (D G D) D A | D AD | G D | G A | D A | D A
A (A D A) A E | A EA | D A | D E | A E | A E

I-IV-V-I
C (C F G C) C G | C GC | F C | F D | G D | G DG | C G | C G
G (G C D G) G D | G DG | C G | C A | D A | D AD | G D | G D
D (D G A D) D A | D AD | G D | G E | A E | A EA | D A | D A
A (A D E A) A E | A EA | D A | D B | E B | E BE | A E | A E

I-flat VII-I
G (G F G) G D | G DG | F C | F D | G D | G D
D (D C D) D A | D AD | C G | C A | D A | D A
A (A G A) A E | A EA | G D | G E | A E | A E
E (E D E) E B | E BE | D A | D B | E B | E B

I-VI-I
C (C A C) C G | C E | A E | A G | C G | C G
G (G E G) G D | G B | E B | E D | G D | G D
D (D B D) D A | D F# | B F# | B A | D A | D A *
A (A F# A) A E | A C#| F# C# | F# E | A E | A E *

I-VI-II-V-I (circle of fifths)
F (F D C G F) F C | F A | D A | D A | G D | G D | C G | C G | F C | F C
C (C A D G C) C G | C E | A E | A E | D A | D A | G D | G D | C G | C G
G (G E A D G) G D | G B | E B | E B | A E | A E | D A | D A | G D | G D
D (D B E A D) D A | D F# | B F# | B F# | E B | E B | A E | A E | D A | D A *
or
F (F D C G F) F C | F A | D A | D AD | G D | G DG | C G | C GC | F C | F C
C (C A D G C) C G | C E | A E | A EA | D A | D AD | G D | G DG | C G | C G
G (G E A D G) G D | G B | E B | E BE | A E | A EA | D A | D AD | G D | G D
D (D B E A D) D A | D F# | B F# | B F#B | E B | E BE | A E | A EA | D A *
* If your instrument doesn't have F# or C#, try substituting F and C.

Further Reading

  • Berliner, Paul. The Soul of Mbira. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
  • Courlander, Harold. "Musical Instruments of Cuba." Musical Quarterly 28 (1942): 227-40. ------------. "Musical Instruments of Haiti." Musical Quarterly 28.3 (1941): 380-81.
  • Del Puerto, Carlos and Silvio Vergara. The True Cuban Bass. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music, 1994.
  • Dufrasne, JosŽ Emanuel. "Los instrumentos musicales afroboricuas." In La tercera ra’z. Presencia africana en Puerto Rico. N.p.: Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Puertorrique–a, 1992.
  • Gansemans, Jos. "Le marimbula, un lamellaphone Africain aux Antilles Neerlandaises." Cahiers de musiques traditionelles 2 (1989): 125-32. Gerard, Charley and Marty Sheller. Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music. Crown Point, IN: White Cliffs Media, 1989.
  • Kauffman, Robert et al. "Lamellaphone." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980.
  • Manuel, Peter. Caribbean Currents. From Rumba to Reggae. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
  • Ortiz, Fernando. Los instrumentos de la mœsica afrocubana. Madrid: Editorial Musicamundana Maqueda, 1996.
  • Roberts, Robert Storm. The Latin Tinge. The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States. Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Thomson, Donald. "The Mar’mbula, an Afro-Caribbean Sanza." Yearbook for Inter-American Musical Research 7 (1971): 103-116.