The marimba, a musical instrument deeply rooted in Afro-Colombian culture, serves as a symbol of the ancestral heritage of the Colombian Pacific Coast. Heard everywhere in the Departments of Choco, Nariño, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca, the marimba holds a unique place in the hearts of the local population.
The marimba’s cultural importance is underscored by its designation as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2010.
Exploring the origins
The Chonta marimba finds its roots in Africa, specifically the Congo region. As slavery reached Colombian shores, enslaved individuals brought the concept of this instrument from their native continent. With the materials available in this new territory, they began recreating the African instrument.
The first builders were the currulao slaves, who constructed paths from the interior of present-day Colombia to the sea. In their daily lives, they envisioned the instruments from Africa and how they could replicate them in their new surroundings. The construction of the Colombian marimba differs from that in Mexico or Africa, representing a unique adaptation of the African balafon with the materials and forms found in the Pacific.
Crafting the Chonta Marimba
Constructed from chontas and guaduas, the Colombian marimba’s tuning varies depending on the luthier, traditionally tuned with the voices of singers or the sounds of nature. In some Western regions, it is mistakenly referred to as “the piano of the jungle.”
The Chonta marimba is crafted from the Chonta tree, specifically cut during the waning moon. This follows ancestral knowledge, which states that if not cut during the waning moon, the chonta will not last, leading to cracks in the marimba. Guadua is also used, and both are cut according to the desired tuning, with water poured inside the guadua to achieve the desired note.
The marimba holds profound cultural and spiritual significance for Colombia, particularly in the southern Pacific regions like Nariño, Tumaco, and Cauca. It plays a crucial role in religious rituals, including funeral rites such as Chigualos, Cantos de boga, Pangos, Bundes, and Patacones – all songs and rhythms performed with the marimba and vocals.