You must marimba this
June 9, 2008 · Updated 1:49 PM
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, its oddly difficult to conceptualize the marimba as a whole.
When people ask what you play and you say marimba, theyre like, Whats 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, thats 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, theyd 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 Ushamwaris 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 Zimbabwes 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 Ushamwaris 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 arent 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 bands 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 Nicaraguas national instrument.
Yet the majority of (Ometepe students) have never seen one, she said. And they dont have any sort of music program in their school system.
Meehans 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, theyll 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 its 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. Im not a big dancing person...but it has that groove going that I love.
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.