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Marimba, a percussion instrument consisting of parallel, graduated, tuned wooden bars that are struck with a mallet. Known as the national instrument of Guatemala, the marimba is also found in southern Mexico, Central America, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Peru. In the controversy over the marimba's origin, the Central Americans are nationalistic, but the earliest documentation dates only to the 1680s. Scholarly opinion favors the theory of African descent because of the similarity with the African xylophone, the linguistic parallel between the Peruvian and the Bantu word for the instrument, and the lack of early archaeological evidence in America.

Marimbas evolved in America, using local woods and gourds for buzzing and resonation. A nineteenth-century variation substituted wooden boxes for gourds, and another variation used a shoulder strap instead of supporting legs. In the 1890s the early diatonic tuning was modified into the fully chromatic scale played on the marimba doble by the Hurtado brothers (The Royal Marimba Band).The grande has eighty bars and is played by four musicians, while the cuache has fifty bars and is played by three. Village marimbas still use the older diatonic scale, while acculturated Indians prefer the chromatic scale and the popular and international repertory. Beginning in the late 1970s a revival of folk groups in Chile and Peru, which spread to Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, the United States, and Europe, featured players such as Zeferino Nan-dayapa, who adapted Bach, Mozart, and Handel for use in concert halls as well as for television and commercial recordings.

See alsoMusic: Popular Music and Dance; Musical Instruments.


See listings in New Grove Dictionary of Music (1980); F. Maccalum, The Book of the Marimba (1968).

Additional Bibliography

Beck, John. Encyclopedia of Percussion. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Navarrete Pellicer, Sergio. Maya achi marimba music in Gautemala. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

Vela, David. La marimba: Estudio sobre el instrumento nacional. Guatemala: Dirección General de Cultura y Artes, 2006.

                                              Guy Bensusan

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marimba. Lat.-Amer. perc. instr. of African origin. It consists of strips of wood of different length with (tuned) resonators underneath, the whole fixed in a frame and struck with drum-sticks—in fact, a super-xylophone large enough for perf. by 4 players (or marimberos), standing or sitting side by side. Now made with bars of rosewood and tubular metal resonators which are struck with soft-headed hammers held by the player(s). Grainger scored for the marimba in the suite In a Nutshell before 1916. Milhaud wrote a conc. for marimba and vibraphone (1947) and Creston a conc. for marimba (1940). It now frequently occurs in orch. works.

The S. African original, known to Afrikaans-speaking Europeans as the kaffir piano, is called the malimba by natives.

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ma·rim·ba / məˈrimbə/ • n. a deep-toned xylophone of African origin. The modern form was developed in the U.S. c.1910.

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marimba: see xylophone.