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Thursday, July 23, 2015 (read 4823 times)

The Marimba

by Jessica

A Traditional Percussion Instrument in Central America

A member of the percussion family, the marimba has a long history dating back to the African slaves that came to Mexico in the 17th Century. The marimba was originally constructed with planks of wood balanced over a hole to act as a resonator and played with sticks; nowadays it is of course rather more sophisticated with planks of wood resembling piano keys balanced on metal tubes as the resonators.

  • A traditional percussion instrument in Central America dating back many centuries, the marimba is still incredibly popular today.
  • Marimba music is an essential part of many Hispanic American festivals; indeed no festival in Mexico or Guatemala is complete without Mexican music being played on a marimba, showing how traditionally important this instrument is.


Although the original roots of the marimba are often debated, it is an important musical instrument across the whole of Central America, and has deep connections with the area. It was first constructed in Chiapas, Mexico, and it quickly spread across Central America. Mayan populations also built marimbas to play music on, and the first record of a Mayan marimba dates to 1680. After 1680, the marimba grew in popularity with indigenous populations constructing them for use in festivals. Today these percussion instruments are still incredibly popular, having been named Guatemala’s national instrument in 1821 and remaining a significant part of Mexican culture in particular.

Strongly resembling a xylophone, the marimba has a deeper, more resonant sound and has a greater range. The keys are traditionally made out of wood, although they are also on occasion made out of synthetic materials; when the bars are made from synthetic materials the instrument makes a slightly different sound that is less true to the traditional resonance. The structure of the keys resembles a piano, with the equivalent of both the white and black keys, giving this percussion instrument a true musical range. The keys sit atop metal tubes that are designed firstly to ensure that the note lasts for as long as possible, and also to match the pitch of the key on top. The whole structure is fixed to a frame, normally made from metal or artificial materials, allowing the marimba to be easily played standing up. Sticks, known as mallets, of various hardnesses are used to hit the keys; those with softer heads are better for lower notes, and those with harder heads are ideal for the high notes. The more experienced marimba player can hold 3 mallets in each hand, which allows for many notes to be played simultaneously, however the norm is 2 mallets in each hand; less experienced players of course just use two mallets.

A very famous instrument in both Guatemalan and Mexican music, the marimba is also popular in other Central American countries, such as El Salvador and Costa Rica. The marimba has also become internationally famous thanks to its unique and attractive sounds. Many jazz musicians such as Steve Nelson and Joe Locke have featured the marimba in their music, while musical superstars such as Elton John and ABBA have featured this percussion instrument on their tracks as well. 

Keywords: marimba,percussion instrument,mexican music,marimba music,guatemalan music,percussion family

Posted In: Latin America, Culture


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