Any description of Guatemalan music would be woefully incomplete without a discussion of the marimba. Declared Guatemala’s national instrument in 1978, the birth of this massive wooden instrument is shrouded in mystery. Many believe that it originated in Indochina, underwent structural improvements and changes in Africa, and was then brought to Guatemala by African slaves in 1595. Regardless of its origin, historian Erna Ferguson accurately stated that “the marimba may not be from Guatemala, but it is undoubtedly Guatemalan.”
Made from the wood of the rare hormigo tree, the marimba is a percussion instrument that resembles a huge xylophone. Attached to the base of its wooden keys are resonance boxes. These boxes are nowadays made from cedar or cypress wood, but in old times they were fashioned by skilled carvers out of hollowed-out gourds or bamboo tubes. Such antique marimbas are still in existence, but they are primarily found in rural areas where families have preserved their special instruments for generations. The marimba has been a staple of Guatemalan music for several centuries. The first documented marimba performance in Guatemala occurred in the year 1680 in front of the Cathedral Santiago de Guatemala of present-day Antigua.
The marimba developed in Guatemala as an instrument of the masses, the playing of which was taught from father to son over many generations. It is definitely not a solo instrument, as three to four people can play the marimba at one time. The simple marimba was later tweaked, adding a smaller tenor marimba for two to three more people. The combination of the two is referred to as Marimba cuache, or ‘twin Marimba.’ It is now common in most concerts to have both the simple and tenor marimbas present. Significant practice and coordination between members of a marimba group are required to play in unison and harmony. As a result, the best Marimba groups in Guatemala charge incredible fees for their concerts, but they are a sight to see. Bands including the famous Los Conejos travel the country and draw huge crowds for their entertaining shows. I had the chance to see a Los Conejos concert in the tiny town of San Miguel Milpas Altas, outside of Antigua Guatemala. It is not an exaggeration to say that every single person in San Miguel was in attendance that night. The marimba is truly a central piece of Guatemalan culture. The famous marimba piece, ‘Luna de Xelajú’ is often considered a sort of unofficial Guatemalan national anthem, perhaps because the real anthem is so long. If you are able, it would be wise to seek out a marimba concert before ending your time in Guatemala.
Photo Credit: Revue Magazine