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You must marimba this

Freshman Annie Stern makes joyful noise as she pounds out a tune with the all-student marimba band Ushamwari. The group, led by instructor Paul Meehan, serenaded afternoon commuters Wednesday at the Bainbridge ferry terminal to promote their Saturday evening concert at Island Center Hall. The show will raise funds for a summer trip to Ometepe, Nicaragua to help set up a music program. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Freshman Annie Stern makes joyful noise as she pounds out a tune with the all-student marimba band Ushamwari. The group, led by instructor Paul Meehan, serenaded afternoon commuters Wednesday at the Bainbridge ferry terminal to promote their Saturday evening concert at Island Center Hall. The show will raise funds for a summer trip to Ometepe, Nicaragua to help set up a music program.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Ushamwari Ensemble raises funds for an Ometepe journey.

Consider the marimba. Its name is familiar, as is its wood-slatted frame; you know its sound when you hear it.

But unlike a trumpet or a piano, it’s oddly difficult to conceptualize the marimba as a whole.

“When people ask what you play and you say ‘marimba,’ they’re like, ‘What’s that?’” said Stefani Paul.

Paul, one of 12 island students who comprise the marimba ensemble Ushamwari, stood in the circular courtyard at the Bainbridge ferry terminal awaiting the 3:50 boat from Seattle on Wednesday afternoon.

Flanked by marimbas of various sizes and tones, she and her fellow and sister band-mates had assembled with their director Paul Meehan to serenade the off-loaders in a mission that was part-educational – oh right, that’s what a marimba is – and part promotional.

In that sunny spot the group, in existence for nearly five years, offered a sampling of the tunes it will play this evening at Island Center Hall in a benefit concert to help raise money for a summer trip to Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Under the auspices of the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Association, Ushamwari – which means “life-long friends” in the Shona language of the people of Zimbabwe – the group hopes to establish a multi-pronged music program on Ometepe.

First, they’d like to raise enough money to make the trip. They also plan to take hand-made marimbas to Ometepe, teach students how to build their own, and employ a full-time music teacher there to carry on the music.

Marimba construction served as Ushamwari’s genesis. Shortly after moving to Washington State, Meehan – formerly a woodworker and kayak builder – heard a marimba band playing on the streets of Port Townsend.

“I was just hooked on it,” he said. “I could hear it from a couple of blocks away, and it hooked me.”

He found the instruments’ range, from a low bass to a high soprano, irresistible, not to mention the tunes. The band on that particular day was playing the music of Zimbabwe’s marimba master Dumisani Maraire.

Shortly thereafter, Meehan not only joined a marimba band but set his sights on building the instruments from scratch, using economical and readily available materials like scrap lumber for the bars and PVC pipe for the resonators, just as African musicians typically did.

Each marimba, which resembles a gigantic xylophone, has its own pitch, dependent on the circumference and height of its resonators, or pipes; the width of its bars; and other factors.

Some, like Ushamwari’s largest bass, are so tall and wide that its player must stand on a platform to reach the bars, and playing the instrument resembles a sideways step-aerobic workout.

Others aren’t as grand in scale and yield a less booming, more dulcet tone. Some are played singly, others in pairs.

Meehan has constructed most of the band’s instruments himself, notably the frames. But his students pitch in by using woodworking chisels to fine-tune the bars.

According to parent Penny Daniels, Ushamwari actually started as a group of students simply interested in making the instruments, and evolved into a band from there.

“This was a group of kids who kind of wanted to step it up a level,” Daniels said.

As they practiced on their own time and developed a sound, they began to connect with the community through performances at IslandWood as well as fund-raisers and retreats.

One such performance was for an anniversary celebration for BOSIA, attended by an Ometepe delegation. One thing led to another, and the seed was planted for the students to visit the island itself.

Even more fitting, Daniels pointed out, was that the marimba is Nicaragua’s national instrument.

“Yet the majority of (Ometepe students) have never seen one,” she said. “And they don’t have any sort of music program in their school system.”

Meehan’s goal before June is to make several marimbas to take to Ometepe. When they arrive, the Bainbridge students plan to use local resources to build additional instruments to leave for the students and their new teacher. In that way, they’ll act as true musical ambassadors.

While marimbas are in practice percussive instruments, full of thump and vibration, they are at their soul, melody-makers that demand the full concentration of the young Ushamwari musicians. They also capture the rapt, foot-tapping attention of the building crowd at the ferry landing on this sunny winter afternoon.

Sure, as band member Holden Willingham says, playing the marimba is “an excuse to hit things with large mallets.” But it’s also the music of optimism.

“It definitely has that positive energy to it, which I think is the hook that got me when I heard it from 12 blocks away 12 years ago,” Meehan said. “Just that infectious groove. I’m not a big dancing person...but it has that groove going that I love.”

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A mallet delegation

The Ushamwari Marimba Ensemble will play a BOSIA delegation concert and dance from 7 to 10 p.m. Feb. 23 at Island Center Hall. Proceeds will fund a music education exchange between young people of Bainbridge Island and those of the island of Ometepe.

For more information and to make donations online, visit http://ushamwari.org.

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