The Musical Life and Times of Harry Brabec, Legendary Chicago Symphony Percussionist & Humorist

The Story of the Marimba

November 26th, 2010 | Posted in Guest Writers, Percussion Instruments

Editor’s note: I was given a typewritten copy of this article by James Dutton in the late fifties when I was one of his marimba students.  In the belief that it has not been published elsewhere — and given that there is so little on the Web about James Dutton — I have pulled this article from my marimba scrapbook and taken the liberty of publishing it here for the benefit of marimba historians. (Subheadings have been added to enhance readability on the Web. The marimba illustration is from stationery I designed for myself in the fifties. Copyright 2010 by Barbara Brabec.)

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Illustration by the Editor, from stationery she designed in the fifties

The Story of the Marimba

by James W. Dutton
Head of Marimba Department
American Conservatory of Music
Copyright James W. Dutton

INSTRUMENTS SIMILAR TO MARIMBAS have been found in tombs near the Pyramids, which were built more than 5000 years ago. We read in the Bible, in the books of Genesis and Job, of instruments which must have been early ancestors of our present-day marimba. Old sculptures at Nineveh and Babylon show bearded musicians playing on such instruments.

The marimba is so old an instrument, we are not sure where it was first used; some think in Africa; others say it may have originated in South or Central America. As proof, they tell of a mountain in Guatemala which is called, in the native dialect of the country, “the marimba of the ravines.”

The native African and Latin American marimbas are very much alike. They are both made up of wooden bars or keys, with gourds of different sizes below the keys as resonators. These crude resonators each have two holes, one at the top and one at the bottom, the bottom hole being covered with a thin film of spider’s skin. When the marimba is played, this film causes a peculiar buzzing sound.

In Africa, the natives carry their curved marimbas in front of them, held by a cord which passes around their necks. The Guatemalan “marimberos” (marimba players) go from place to place carrying their marimbas with them on their backs.

Chinese Marimbas

The Chinese people have a number of amusing legends about their music and their instruments. For example, the story is told that the Chinese system of musical scales was given to them by a magic bird.

Also we are told that Confucious, the Chinese philosopher who lived about 500 B.C., heard some Chinese music and was so overcome by its beauty that he could not take any food for three months afterward. The music which affected him so was played on a sort of Chinese marimba made of slabs of stone. The performer on this instrument, a Chinese called Kouei, was supposed to have played so beautifully that wild animals were drawn to him and were so charmed by his music that they would become meek and tame.
Chinese history tells us that the Chinese had a form of the marimba as long ago as 2000 years before the birth of Christ. At that time it was considered a sacred instrument and was used to accompany songs of praise. At the moment in the religious ceremony when the instrument was sounded, the Chinese burned sticks of incense.

The Chinese marimba was not only a holy but a royal instrument. It was played before the emperor early in the morning when he awoke.

For the stone keys of the instrument, the Chinese used a type of stone which was very hard, held its pitch well, and was beautiful with many colors. These stones were often cut into odd shapes. Some represented animals, such as a bat with outstretched wings, or two fishes side by side. Others were in the shape of the ancient Chinese bell.

But the Chinese were not the only people to use the shape of animals in the design of the marimba. In Java, the marimba was made in the shape of a dragon, beautifully carved and painted.

Marimbas in Other Parts of the World

In different parts of the world, there are strange customs having to do with the marimba. For example, in New Britain (an island in the Dutch East Indies), women are never allowed to see the instrument, and it is played only in the dead of night. In other parts of the world, women are usually the marimba players, and often two women will play duets. In some parts of Africa, only princes of royal blood are allowed to play the marimba.

Michael Joseph Gusikov*

It was a long time before the marimba became popular in Europe. For many years it was used only by wandering gypsy-like peoples. Then, around 1830, Michael Joseph Gusikov played it with skill and made it known in all the musical centers of Europe. He made many tours, during which he was heard and praised by such famous musicians as Chopin, Liszt, and Mendelssohn. The latter so admired Gusikov that he arranged a Paganini work for marimba and piano and played the piano part himself.

Gusikov was a handsome man and a good showman. One of the clever parts of his act was to put his marimba together before the eyes of his audience, and then amaze them by playing beautiful music on the crude instrument made only of straw with wooden sticks across it. It is easy to understand why it was called the “Strohfiedel” – or “Straw Fiddle.”

Difference Between a  Xylophone and a Marimba

Many people ask, “What is the difference between a xylophone and a marimba?” Originally there was very little difference except in name. The word “marimba” comes from the African word for the instrument, while “xylophone” is made up of two Greek words meaning “wood” and “sound.” Even today there is no great difference except in range. The xylophone is much higher in pitch, and therefore most of the pieces played on it have to be transposed and played an octave higher than written.

However, it is the improvements which have been made in the marimba which make it different from the xylophone. The improved method of suspending the bars, the use of thinner pieces of wood, better methods of tuning, more accurate resonators, and the use of yarn and vulcanized rubber mallets all go to make up the fine concert marimba we have today.


* Gusikov is also spelled Gusikow, according to this biographical article that mentions his musical showmanships mentions  and instrument he made “out of wood and straw resembling a xylophone.”

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2 Responses to “The Story of the Marimba”

  1. As a xylophone (also known as a marimba) soloist, I can only say thanks bunches for this article! But was it really only first published in November, 2010?

    A. Jacobowitz

    • Editor says:

      When Dutton gave me a copy of this article in the late fifties — which he surely gave to all his marimba students — he signed it just as I’ve indicated in the article heading (except that I added the copyright notation to indicate that I respect Copyright Law). I would think that if the article had been reprinted from a book, magazine, or perhaps a thesis, Dutton would have (should have) indicated that on the article handout with an appropriate copyright notice. Keyword searches for various phrases in this article did not reveal that it has ever been published before on the Web, so unless and until someone tells me different, I am assuming this is the article’s first formal publication.

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