The modern Marimba is a long way from its ancestor. The original Marimba still exists, but is almost unheard of in concert music. I’m referring to the Chiapas Marimba, an ethnic instrument from the state of Chiapas in Mexico. (Yes, I’m aware that the Marimba has earlier origins in Africa, but that will delve too deep into ethnomusicology for the purposes of orchestration).
The Chiapas Marimba differs from the concert Marimba in that the resonators (almost always made of dried gourds) are equipped with buzzing membranes that give the instrument a reedy, almost saxophone-like sound. The range is often times must larger as well. A few years ago, 5-octave Marimbas were rarities (though this has now changed), but Chiapas Marimbas have always had 5-6 octaves. The 6 octave instruments are larger than any current Marimba in production. These instruments will usually have a half-octave added on to the normal 5-octave range (F1 – F7).
The sound can be used in completely different ways than the normal Marimba, especially in the lower register. A roll on the low notes will become almost seamless and will add to an overall bass. Arpeggios will have a richer quality to them without the harsh attack of the Marimba.
Example of a 5.5 octave Chiapas Marimba
A 5 octave instrument
Note: nearly all the time, the Chiapas Marimba is played by multiple people (2-3). These instruments are so large (up to 10.5 feet in length) that accommodating more than one person is easy.
Surprisingly, the first American-made Marimbas made were much closer to the design of these Chiapas instruments. The Deagan company basically invented the modern Marimba. Their first instruments were called “Nabimbas.” Only a handful of these instruments were made. Outwardly, they look like a modern Marimba, but the buzzing resonators give a sound almost identical to the Chiapas instruments. Only a single work in the literature calls for a Nabimba, Percy Grainger’s In a Nutshell Suite from 1912, which incidentally is also the very first composition to ever score for a Marimba as well. Deagan offered these instruments up to a 5-octave range.
A Deagan Nabimba
These two instruments, while outwardly different, are virtually the same. It can add a completely new color to the percussion section, and can easily blend with the reed instruments.