Marimba, thy name is joy

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BALAFON MARIMBA ENSEMBLE

Released: 1992
Label: Shanachie

Told by Brian Santo

I took guitar lessons when I was a kid, and even though I had a vague ambition to be a rock star, it was apparent even to me even then, as young as I was, that I would never be motivated enough to actually work for it. Writing was my thing, anyway; I’d make a career of that, I knew. Besides, air guitar worked great back then. Still does; it’s just that nowadays Annie Clark has replaced Mick Taylor.

By ’93, I’d been living in New York City for years. I’d got to see John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash live, and the Ramones and Tito Puente, Les Paul and Elvis Costello, James Brown and more. The journalism job I’d got out of college was turning into a decent career. I was newly married. Within a five-block radius were great restaurants with food from India, Ethiopia, the Ukraine, Tibet and Jamaica. Life was pretty darn good.

Like most Americans, I grew up with sha-la-las, 4/4 beats, verse-chorus-verse, three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust, but my ear continuously caught on more exotic sounds (exotic to me). I kept exploring – bluegrass, bossa nova, the multiple genres that stewed together to make New Orleans music. Paul Simon, The Talking Heads and a few other bands had been leaving signposts to music from Africa, and I began following a few of those pointers.

At the time, pretty much the only way to get to hear music from Africa was to buy it. One day I was in Tower Records and bought a sampler put out by Shanachie Records. The album that changed my life wasn’t a whole album – it was a single cut off that disk. It was called “I Already Have a Husband,” by Balafon Marimba Ensemble. The liner notes said little more than that they were a bunch of Americans playing music from Zimbabwe.

It was the most joyous thing I’d ever heard. If I felt down, I’d play it, and then I was up. If it was my turn to wash the dishes, I’d play it, and I was like Snow White whistling while she worked. If I wanted to do that almost-like-dancing thing I do when no one is looking, I’d play it, and do that thing, and feel great.

And – and! – I wanted to learn to play it. All I needed to do was find out more about Balafon Marimba.

Which turned out impossible.

Tower Records had nothing. Nothing at the shops on St. Marks. Nothing on Bleecker Street. Occasional forays to record stores in Brooklyn turned up nothing. Nobody I knew had ever heard of them. There didn’t seem to be anyone to ask. Every week I scoured the listings in the Village Voice to see if the band was coming to town; they never did.

That one cut was all I had, and all I would ever have.

In ’95 my wife and I had a baby. In ’96 we moved across the country, to Portland, Oregon. One day, after we’d been there a year or so, I’d arranged to meet my wife out for lunch. I was early, so I ambled in to Music Millennium to browse. On the way out, I found I still had a bit of time to kill, so I began riffling through the Local Artists bin.

And there they were: two different CDs by Balafon Marimba Ensemble. Interspersed with CDs from Boka Marimba. The Pacific Northwest, it turns out, is the nexus of Zimbabwean music in the US.

Balafon is from Eugene, but Boka is a Portland band, and we went to see them. The show was fantastic. On the way out, I grabbed some of the band’s flyers. One was from a member of Boka who gave lessons. I figured: new kid, new job, new town – too busy. Maybe someday.

The best gift I ever got, I got on my next birthday. My wife gave me a gift certificate for my first five marimba lessons. I’ve been playing ever since. Somewhere in my mid-thirties I became a musician. There are a few things that are better than making music, but you can count them on one hand and have fingers left over.

I could kick myself for not learning to play something, anything, earlier, but I was who I was, and better late than never. I will never be a great musician. I might never be a good one. But I am a musician, and it’s a wonderful thing.

It’s a revelation when you and your bandmates click on a song. You don’t even have to look; you can feel when the crowd starts dancing, and it’s amazing. And sometimes when I’m playing, I do that thing I hope reminds some people of dancing. It’s fun and it’s indescribably fulfilling.

“I Already Have a Husband.” is based on a Jit tune; that makes it a little more like western pop. Other Zimbabwean marimba pieces are similarly reminiscent of western pop music, but there is also a repertoire based on mbira songs, some of which are literally hundreds of years old. These tend to have complex interweaving and counter-rhythmic lines. They have time signatures that tend to confound westerners – 3/2 is common. There are songs I play (and have been told I am playing correctly) I honestly cannot tell you where the beat is.

I also bumbled into a musical tradition where nothing is written down. It’s all passed along from musician to musician, which works well for me because I still don’t sight-read. I’ve also had the good fortune to have learned some songs directly from Zimbabwean teachers. In addition to having something new to play, it’s been a pleasure meeting people I otherwise wouldn’t have. Someday I might pick up the mbira. Someday I might travel to Zimbabwe.

So, yeah, one song changed my life. It means different things to different people to say an album changed their life. I’ve heard some say an artist articulated what they felt but didn’t know how to express. Some talk about how liking a particular artist led them to other people who were drawn to that same artist too; the music was the way to identify a tribe they had no other way of connecting with. None of that ever happened to me. It would have been nice if it had.

The one song that changed my life did it in a very different, very tangible way. It inspired me to make music, not just listen to it. I feel lucky, and I’m grateful to Balafon Marimba Ensemble. And even more grateful to my wife.

Brian Santo writes about media, technology and  (obviously) music  from Portland, Ore. 

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