It consists of a wood box with a sound hole cut in the center of it. Across this hole, a number of metal strips are attached at one end to the resonating box. These metal strips are tuned to different pitches, and are plucked to produce a bassline for the music. The marímbula is usually classified as part of the lamellophone family of musical instruments.
With its roots in African instruments, the marimbula originated in the province of Oriente, Cuba, in the 19th century. Eventually it spread throughout the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa, from Liberia to the Congo. By the 1930s it had made its way to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, other Caribbean islands, Mexico, and as far away as New York City. The Cubans call it marímbula, and most of the other Caribbean countries have adopted this name or some variant of it: marimba, malimba, manimba, marimbol. The instrument has a number of other names, such as marímbola (Puerto Rico), bass box, calimba (calymba), rhumba box, Church & Clap, Jazz Jim or Lazy Bass (Jamaica), and box lamellophone.
African slaves of the Caribbean made musical instruments from whatever stray material they could lay their hands on. Early marimbulas were made from discarded wooden packing crates, with tongues (keys) made of springy wood, bamboo, old hack-saw blades, all kinds of discarded springs, etc. The musician sits on top of the box reaching down to pluck the tongues whilst slapping the sides of the box like a drum. The instrument's evolution and playing style is similar to the cajon box drum.
This instrument was very important in the development of Afro-Cuban music as it was one of the basic instruments played by changüí musicians. Both changüí and son genres developed as a result of the combination of African and Spanish musical styles and instrumentation. Thus, changüí musicians still play a pair of tack-head bongos, marímbula, a pair of maracas, guiro, and tres to accompany the voice of the vocalist and chorus. Most of the above mentioned instruments are handmade folk instruments, made from locally available materials, as opposed to commercially produced instruments.
This was one of the many instruments imported from the Americas to Africa, which continue to be played to this day, in various forms and styles, particularly in the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Ghana and Nigeria.
Designs of marimbulas vary greatly, in terms of the material of resonator, the number and arrangement of keys, the overall arrangement and size of the instrument and the way it is played.
Unlike typical African lamellophones used to produce complex polyphony and polyrhythms, the marimbula basically plays the role of a bass guitar, to provide the rhythmic and harmonic support for a band, although it can produce a simple melody as well.
The marímbula became quite popular in Jamaica in conjunction with guitars, drums, maracas, and vocals in the churches, where it was known as church and clap, in nightclubs where it was known as jazz jim, and among the various hotel performers, who played mento music. It can still be found in use by mento musicians such as The Jolly Boys.
It is fairly easy to learn to play the marimbula, especially for those who have a grasp of some other musical instrument, since no intricate technique is involved.
- Chamorro, Arturo (1984). Los Instrumentos De Percusión En México. México: Colegio de Michoacán. ISBN 978-968-7230-02-3.
- INAH (1988). Atlas Cultural de México. Música. México: Grupo Editorial Planeta. ISBN 968-406-121-8.
- Photos of marimbulas
- The story of the marimbula
- Modern marimbula workshop
- Another page on the marimbula with examples
- Video of Cuban musicians playing Changui