About the vibraphone


The Vibraphone 

excerpted from Marimba and Vibraphone in African and African-American Music

 by Jay Hoggard

A general examination of books about instruments and

instrumentalists shows that many modern instruments have

documented histories of 200 or more years. Many books on

keyboards, strings, woodwinds, brass, and even harp are available.

The history of the vibraphone and its relatives, however, is sparsely

documented; very few histories of these instruments or their

predecessors exist.

As a musical descendant of the first two major vibraphone

innovators, Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, I approach the

vibraphone as a twentieth century descendant of the marimbas of

Africa. I view these instruments and their musical contexts as part of

the same flow; their connectedness is essential. For me, African

marimbas provide a vital musical, organological, and structural link

between traditional African music concepts and some uses of the

vibraphone in the contemporary African-American derived music

known as jazz.

Rhythmic, melodic, sonic, textural, and conceptual elements of

various African marimba traditions have specifically and directly

influenced my personal approach to the vibraphone. I think that some

of these same musical and extra musical sensibilities have played a

role in the overall stylistic development of the vibraphone. I do not

imply that the musical development of this instrument in the broader

context of African-American derived music is exclusively linked to the

marimba traditions of Africa. But I do think that connections exist in

terms of deep structured sensibility.

In my interviews with Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, I asked

them about the influence of African music on their musical

development. They both responded with reference to African and

Latin beats and grooves. However, they both said that they were not

aware of African marimbas until they had already matured in their

personal styles on the vibraphone. Though neither Hampton nor

Jackson consciously considered African marimba musics as

influential in their personal development on the vibraphone, they were

both receptive to my idea that connections exist between these


The environments in which both Hampton and Jackson grew

up provided extensive exposure to complexly derived African-

American cultural and musical manifestations on a direct experiential

level. Though the African influence in this culture was implicit, it was

not connected on a conscious, direct, specified, or prioritized level by

most African- and other Americans previous to the Civil Rights era.

The early environments of most African-Americans did not generally

lead them to exploration of their African origins. The origins of

African-American music were rarely studied before the Civil Rights

era.The fifties and sixties brought a trend of awareness for African-

Americans to seek, identify, and explore their familial and cultural

origins. The widespread trend in the seventies of connecting black

American cultural manifestations to African origins invigorated my

personal interest in African marimbas.

The vibraphone is one of the leading instruments of the modern

percussion family. According to Curt Sachs’ instrument classification

system, the vibraphone is a struck idiophone: ”an instrument made of

sonorous material which is made to vibrate by action of a player”

with a tuned keyboard made up of different bars. This instrument is

sub-classified as a metalophone, since its bars are made of an

aluminum alloy (Chenoweth, 1963, p. 10).

Many instruments from different cultures can be considered

predecessors and relatives of the vibraphone. These idiophones can

be sub-classified as lithophones (stone constructed), xylophones

(wood constructed), and metalophones (metal constructed). Dating

as far back as thousands of years, these instruments first developed

in cultural areas as diverse as West, Central, East, and Southern

Africa, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, Central Asia, Eastern Europe,

Central America, and South America. African xylophones (marimbas),

Asian metalophones, and European idiophones such as the hammer

dulcimer and cymbalon exerted a probable influence on the psyches

of the Euro-American developers of the vibraphone. However, the

most direct inspiration came from the marimbas of Mexico,

Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the deep and resonant tone

of the Central American marimba had found its place alongside the

brighter tone of the two octave diatonic xylophone in American

vaudeville and pit orchestras. The fullness of the marimba’s tone

contrasted the brightness of the xylophone’s as a result of different

overtone tunings: the marimba’s overtones were tuned to octaves in

upper partials and the xylophone overtones were tuned to fifths.

The introduction of the chromatic xylophone and marimba, in

the late 19th century, represents the other major struck idiophone

tradition of the Americas. Early twentieth century instrument makers

sought to refine the basic nature of these instruments with the goal of

developing new sounds and new instruments. The vibraphone was

their triumphant result. The development of this instrument , as a

hybrid of the Afro-Euro-Indian-American experience, coincides with

the development of the music known as jazz.

The following information is based on articles published in the

journal of the Percussive Arts Society, Percussionist, published in

the late 1970s:

The vibraphone was developed in the American Midwest during

the late 1910s and 1920s. The direct predecessor of the vibraphone

was called a steel-marimbaphone. This instrument, made by the

Leedy Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis, was three octaves

(F3-F6) in range, with forged steel bars held in place to a metal

crossbar by metal pins. The edges of the bars were curved and

extended about two to three inches beyond the edge of the frame.

The bars were tuned diatonically and set in two rows, in the manner

of a piano keyboard. Each row could be tilted upward so that the bars

were positioned vertically while the metal resonators underneath the

bars were positioned horizontally, parallel to the floor. This position

(see figure 1) was quite unusual in that the bars and resonators were

switched from the normal position on a marimba or xylophone

(Meyer, 1976, F. 38). The playing area was the edge of the bars as

opposed to the center. This was designed so that the instrument

could be played with both a mallet or a bow.

In 1916, Herman Winterhoff, Vice President of the Leedy

Company, attempted to add a vox humana or tremolo effect to the

instrument. This was done by attaching a motor which raised and

lowered the resonators. A later design moved the resonators laterally

(Howland, 1977, p. 80). The tremolo or vibrato effect obtained from

these designs became characteristic of the contemporary vibraphone

in that it was “not an alteration of pitch as on other instruments or

voice, but an interruption of the air column between the bars and the

resonators.” (Meyer, p. 39).

In 1921, the steel marimbaphone was further refined. The motor

was moved from near the floor to a position under the bars. A rod

was placed through the top of each resonator with metal disks,

slightly smaller than each resonator tube, covering the top of the

tube. To create the vibrato effect, these disks, called pulsators,

rotated inside each resonator tube. This contrasted with the previous

method of moving the entire resonator. As with the marimba and

xylophone, there was no damper pedal on this steel marimbaphone.

In 1922, George Way, sales and advertising manager for Leedy,

coined the name ”Vibraphone” for this instrument (Meyer, p. 39).

The vibraphone was demonstrated in New York that year at the

Rudolph Wurlitzer Store by the young marimba virtuoso Clair Omar

Musser. Musser’s name, in the following decades, would become

synonymous with the finest vibraphones and marimbas. In 1924, a

popular vaudeville circuit artist, named Louis Frank Chiha (Signor

Friscoe), recorded “Aloha Oe” and “Gypsy Love Song”as vibraphone

features. “The popularity of “Aloha Oe” provided widespread

exposure of a new and unique instrumental sound and led towards

the refinements which later produced the vibraphone as it is known

today”. (Howland, p. 81).

Henry Schluter, Chief Engineer and Tuner for the J.C. Deagan

Company, experimented with half-inch thick aluminum as a material

for bars. The Deagan Song Bells were a glockenspiel-type marching

instrument made of aluminum bars, first manufactured in 1921. By

1927, Schluter, whose tuning experiments perfected the octave

versus fifth tuning system for marimba and xylophone, used

tempered aluminum bars, as on the Song Bells, with aluminum

resonators on a three-octave instrument modeled after the Leedy

Vibraphone. This Deagan “Vibraharp” had its bars mounted, parallel

to the floor, with the suspended cord and post method of a marimba.

This differed from the pin-mounting method of the Leedy instrument.

Holes were drilled at the nodal points of each bar and a cord was

threaded through them. The cords were mounted on posts connected

to an aluminum frame, allowing maximum ring of the bars. A damper

system was included to control the duration of the bar’s ring. This

pedal mechanism, located underneath the frame and operated by the

foot, raised and lowered an aluminum crossbar. The crossbar was

covered with a felt strip that ran underneath the flat mounted

keyboard, meeting the bars at their inside edge. The damper system,

together with the aluminum bars and other physical improvements

(motor placement, smoother moving pulsators) set precedents for a

“state of the art” instrument. The Deagan 145 Vibraharp,

manufactured in 1927, became the prototype for all succeeding

instruments. The name Vibraharp was patented by Deagan in 1930;

yet, in the ensuing years to the present, vibraphone has been used to

generically identify the instrument.

In 1931, Clair Omar Musser became sales manager for the

Deagan Company. A brilliant scientist as well as percussionist,

marimba virtuoso, and composer, Musser introduced many early

improvements to the vibraphone. These improvements culminated in

the Deagan 55 Imperial model manufactured in 1937 (Howland, p.

24). This instrument remains the classic offspring of the model 145. In

fact, since this time, the basic structural form of the vibraphone has

remained modeled after these instruments. Since 1930, “none of the

essential features have changed; the only alterations have been the

improvement of the frame, pedal and motor designs. In the

fundamental aspects, however, i.e. thick aluminum bars, revolving

disc pulsators, and pedal operated damper, the vibraphone has not

changed since 1927 and every model to appear since that time is a

copy of the Deagan 145.” (Howland, p. 20)

In 1947, Musser left the Deagan Company to form the Musser

Marimba Company of Chicago. This company immediately took the

lead in manufacture and development of vibraphones and marimbas.

Musser models 55 and 75, developed in the 1950s after the Deagan

Imperial, have been the industry standard since their initial

appearance on the market. Cosmetic and convenience alterations,

electronic effects, midi-compatability, and other computer age

innovations have been adapted to the vibraphone in recent years.

Various internationally based companies have also begun

manufacturing vibraphones since the development of the Musser 55

and 75, including Yamaha of Japan, Premier of England, Bergerault

of France, and Studio 85 of Germany. However, the basic structure of

the vibraphone has remained consistent since 1930.

Table 7 lists some of the vibraphonists who have made

recordings considered part of the jazz tradition. Loosely categorized

by decade of birth, the list arbitrarily is based on vibraphonists whose

recordings I’ve come across. I am sure that there are some

vibraphonists whose names are not included. All omissions are due

to oversight and thesis anxiety. I consider each vibraphonist, master,

teacher, or student, a potential contributor to the vocabulary of this

relatively new instrument. The work of many of the listed musicians

deserves a detailed study. However, at this juncture, I concentrate on

the first two universally acknowledged vibraphone innovators, Lionel

Hampton and Milt Jackson.

Malletheads: My intention is to give a shout to the women and men, sung and unsung, who have contributed to the language of the vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, and its traditional relatives from Africa, Indonesia and other places. My point is, the vibraphone and its contributors need more attention and visibility. It is still the venetian blinds on an ironing board to most listeners. The list is now very long, so I have to limit any additions to those who have already made recorded contributions. I tried my best, but as you know, in making any list, someone is always left off by accident. Don't take it personally, just add their name. Please  list players in the spirit of what this is about. The order is totally random.  We are always the first one to the gig and the last one to leave. Bint dere, dunt it, baby. But the joy is still in bangin' on those tuned bars.  Seeya.


Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo,Tyree Glenn, Milt Jackson,Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Bobby Hutcherson,Terry Gibbs, Marjorie Hyams, Johnny Lytle, Lem Winchester,Gary Burton, Peter Appleyard, Victor Feldman, Emil Richards, Roy Ayers, Walt Dickerson, Jeli Sori Kouyate, Abou Sylla, Malatu Astatke,  Lasanna Diabate, Teddy Charles, Vera Auer, Mike Mainieri, Roger Glenn, Louie Ramierez, Phil Diaz, Herb Gibson, Dave Pike, Bobby Paunetto, Vince Montana, Buddy Montgomery, Jack Ashford, Jack Brokensha, Arnie(Morris) Lang, Phil Kraus, Oscar Garcia ,    Larry Bunker, Willie "Yam" Bivens, Tommy Vig, Harvey Averne,   Alan Dawson, Jaki Byard, George Devens, Dave Carey, Joe Locatelli ,Terry Pollard, Alice McLeod, Gary McFarland ,Karl Berger, Gunter Hampel, Khan Jamal, Ian Finkel, Keiko Abe, Kakraba Lobi, Valerie Naranjo, Leigh Howard Stevens, Gordon Stout, Bob Becker, Russ Hartenberger, Ed Mann, Warren Chiasson, Bobby Naughton, Joe Chambers, Warren Smith, Thurman Barker, Wilson Moormon, Mika Stoltzman, Nancy Zeltzman, David Friedman, Phil Diaz, Dave Samuels, Damon Choice, Ruth Underwood, Dwight Gassaway, Bill Jacobs,Ed Saindon, Victor Mendoza, Eddie Costa, Lem Adams, Orphy Robinson, Jon Metzger, Vesta Maxey,Chuck Redd,Bill Molenhauf, Roger Glenn, Mike Freeman, Andy Vega, Tommy Berrios, AT Mantas, George Rodriguez, Dick Sisto, Ramon Estrada, Pete Terrace, Onaje Murray, David Hoggard, Jay Hoggard, Jerry Tachoir,John Mark Piper,Arthur Lipner, Joe Locke, Hendrik Meurkins, Bruce Wells, Juan Carlos Navarro, Bob DeSena, Steve Nelson, Bryan Carrott , Andy Hernandez (Coati Mundi), Arturo Serra Tony Micelli, Steve Tarango, Marie Noelle Preto,Mike Pinto, John Hollenbeck, Kenny Wolleson Ted Piltzecker, Monte Croft, Bill Ware, Cecilia Smith, Mark Sherman, Ches Smith, Kevin Norton, John Pietaro, Stefan Bauer,Roland Hardtner, Charles Xavier,Christian Tamburr, Alfredo Naranjo, Stefon Harris, Warren Wolf, Gerry Grosz, Matt Moran, Chris Dingman, Jason Adasiewicz ,Bhen Gillice, Bryan De Carlo Lyons, Sam Friedman, Ben Zucker…….




Organology of African Marimbas

         Struck wooden idiophones are used in various music systems throughout the African continent. An idiophone  is a classification of musical instruments in which a resonant solid material, such as wood, metal ,or stone is struck , shaken, or scraped, in order to produce a sound.  Most of the cultures and ethnic groups that traditionally use these instruments are found in sub-Saharan Africa. They are geographically found in regions ranging from the West African coast through central Africa south of the 15 degrees N latitude to the coast of East Africa at approximately 25 degrees S latitude. As Francis Bebey says in his book, African Music: A People's Music, these struck idiophones are in many respects  as representative of African Music as the drum  (Bebey, p. 84). The musical scope of these instruments represents the rhythmic nature of the drum as well as the overall tonal, melodic, and harmonic principles of the various musics of their indigenous cultures.Their magnificence as melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic instruments, and the complexity of their systems of origin, are unrivaled.

In colonial times, these instruments became generically referred to as xylophones, from the Greek words xylon, meaning wood, and phone, meaning voice (Blades, Percussion Instruments and their History, p. 403). Europeans often analyzed, identified, and categorized indigenous aspects of African culture with European nomenclature during the colonial period. It is certain that no indigenous African society identified its struck wooden instruments as xylophones until well into the colonial era. The validity of the term xylophone is that most struck idiophones in Africa are made from wood. Bronze and metal instruments are not usually found as struck idiophones. The metal Mbira type instruments are from another instrument family than the xylophones and are beyond the scope of this study. As with the rest of African cultural diversity, however, there are nearly as many different traditional names for the wooden idiophones as there are languages from which they originate.

 From the various included maps and tables, it can be seen that struck wooden idiophones have been traditionally found in approximately twenty-five different modern African countries; from Senegal to Mozambique. It can also be seen that the dispersion of these instruments follows the same line of delineation as that of the Niger-Kordofanian language family classification referred to in Table 6. In fact, all of the indigenous struck wooden instruments that I have found documented have been identified with African ethnic groups whose languages fall into the Niger-Congo subgroup of the Niger-Kordofanian classification. This subgroup includes the West Atlantic, Mande, Voltaic, and BaNtu language-speaking groups, whose numbers altogether encompass scores of millions of people.

The names identifying the struck wooden idiophones used in these various cultures reflect the diversity of their cultural origins. Balafon, Baline, Marimba, Jimba, Madjimba, Malimba, Amadinda, Akadinda, Endara, Balinga, Sanza, Mbila, Timbila, Gele, Gyle, Kogil, Kennu, and Manganga ,among others, are some of the names that these instruments are called throughout the continent.

The name marimba originates in Central and Southern Africa including Zaire, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Angola (Jones, op. cit.,C. 149). As Robert Garfias points out:

 The word marimba is related to a number of words in BaNtu languages all referring to a xylophone and by extension to musical sound in general. Among the various names for xylophone in BaNtu languages, one finds besides marimba itself, silimba, sirimba, timbila, amadinda or madimba. (Garfias, Marimbas of Central America, p. 205)

The BaNtu group, referred to in Table 5 as a subgroup of the Benue-Congo language classification, spreads over the southern third of Africa from equatorial Gabon and Cameroon to the Cape of Good Hope. It includes such Central, South, and East African languages as Zulu, Kongo, Lingala, Shona, Bemba, Ganda, and Pende, and is the indigenous basis of Swahili (Murray, p. 24-26). The most popular name to generically refer to the struck wooden idiophones in the BaNtu speaking areas is marimba. Though the Mande and Voltaic language groups have extremely sophisticated wooden idiophone systems and use indigenous names for these instruments, I have chosen to generically refer to all African instruments of this type as Marimbas.

The BaNtu language speakers represent the largest population in Africa, thus, the widest usage of a single name for these instruments throughout the continent. The African origins of the wooden idiophones descending from the Central American marimba are not traceable to a specific African or ethnic group but there is no doubt that the name Marimba is of Bantu origin (Garfias, p. 206). In my view, the generic name for the offspring serves well to also identify the progenitor.

 Free Bar and Fixed Bar Marimbas

The construction, size, tuning systems, and performance styles of African marimbas are as diverse as their nomenclature. Boone classified the marimbas of Zaire into two broad categories: fixed keyed and free keyed (Jones, p. 120). Nketia adopted this classification and applied it to marimbas throughout the continent (Nketia, Music of Africa, p. 81). In this study, I use this classification but refer to the instruments as free bar and fixed bar as opposed to keyed.

Free bar marimbas are defined as instruments where the bars are unattached and removable. Nketia further classifies this type into three sub-groups: leg, pit or box, and log marimbas (Nketia, p. 81, and Bebey,D. 84).

A leg marimba uses the human body as a part of the instrument. Wooden bars of varying pitches are placed cross-wise on the outstretched legs of a seated player and struck with rocks or wooden sticks. The pitch of the bars in all types of marimbas is determined by the length, width, depth, shape, and size of the bars (Blades, Percussion Instruments and their History, p. 71). Figure 1 shows a four-bar leg marimba called Kennou from the Bariba people of Benin (Musiques Dahomeenes, Ocora 17). Jones states that leg marimbas have been found in Guinea with two bars and played by children; in Benin with three or four bars and played by adults; and among the Tonga people of Zimbabwe where the instrument is called Chikorekore, has four notes and is played by men (Jones, Africa and Indonesia, p. 123-124). Francis Bebey says:

 Leg xylophone players often sit on wooden mortar or some other large object to act as an amplifier. This is common practice in the north of Togo, in the Kabre area, where the keys of the xylophone are usually comprised of four or five stalks of dried Palmyra palm. (Bebey, p. 84) 

Pit or Box marimbas are a variation of the above-mentioned instrument. A resonance chamber such as a hole in the ground or a wooden box or clay pot is the resting surface for the wooden bars instead of the human body. Two or more wooden bars are laid on top of the chamber and often played by two people. One strikes the bars and the other keeps the bars in place over the chamber. Usually, the bars are completely unattached. Occasionally, the bars in this type of instrument are supported at their nodes by tied bundles of grass or stout wooden poles (Jones, E. 121).


Pit xylophones are found in a few places in West Africa (Guinea, Nigeria, and Chad) in the Central African Republic (among the Azande and the Kala), and in Kenya (among the Kusu). Box xylophones are played by the Zararo of Tanzania while xylophone bars tied over clay pots are found in Iboland in Nigeria.î (Nketia, p. 81)

Boone (p. 110) says that the pit or box type marimbas were played primarily by children, accompanied by drums and other instruments, in many Zairean ethnic groups in the 1930s. 

Log marimbas are made with two long logs of banana trees placed parallel on the ground with the wooden bars laid across the logs. This type instrument is also played with two or more players; each player sits opposite the other and makes sure that the bars stay in place. There may be as many as fifteen bars placed on the banana logs, sometimes held in place by wooden poles similar to those used for pit marimbas. These poles are placed between every other bar. They act as a loose barrier, keeping the bars from moving laterally. The poles occasionally attach to the nodes of the bar but the attachment is removable. The log marimba is found throughout West and Central Africa and is often a vital part of a traditional dance ensemble. Bebey refers to these instruments being used in southwestern Cameroon and in the Central African Republic among the Azande people called Kponimbo (Bebey, p. 84). Boone lists several examples of this type instrument among the Lubero of Zaire called the Endara (Boone, p. 79). The log marimba is portable in that the bars are easily lifted off. The banana logs and bars are stored in a cool place when not used.

Free bar marimbas are usually struck with one or two carved or shaved pieces of wood. These wooden sticks vary in thickness and size from one set to another. Resonance, volume, and tone of the marimba vary according to the sticks. Thicker sticks generally create a larger sound and are usually chosen over thinner ones. The aesthetics of desirable sound for the various kinds of free bar marimbas seem to vary according to the specific requirements of each performance situation. Some marimbas have loud volume and deep resonance while others have thinner, softer textured sounds. The nature of these sounds are connected to the shape and thickness of the playing sticks as well as the shape, thickness, and contour of the bars.

A common trait of free bar marimbas is their lack of additional resonators. Because they have removable bars and resting structures, attachments such as gourds are not applicable. The liner notes to example 2 say “The order of the notes of this loose note xylophone can be changed at will to facilitate the playing of various tunes.” The flexibility of unattached bars, however, also limits the tonal projection and overall sound quality of these instruments because permanent resonators cannot be used.

 The tuning systems used for free bar marimbas vary according to cultural and other circumstances. Since most free bar marimbas are made of only a few bars, their compass is usually an octave or less. Tuning and modal structures within each specific African musical and cultural environment vary greatly. Though there is widespread usage of pentatonic and hexatonic scale systems, the definitions and parameters of these scales differ in each cultural environment. The two notes of a leg marimba from Benin do not necessarily correspond to those of a two-note instrument in another culture. Likewise, the five-note per octave of the Cameroonian log marimbas do not necessarily correspond to those of a five-note instrument in Zaire. The wide ranges within an octave of available tones point out the tonal diversity of African marimba systems and the uniqueness and individuality of each musical culture. Though common tonal links are discernible, the variety of tonalities parallels the diversity of languages and names which identify the musical cultures of Africa from where the marimbas come. 

Free bar marimbas tend to be highly rhythmic in performance character. Taking into account the fundamental notion of African rhythmic sensibility, the dominance of rhythm is highlighted by the limited notes available on any particular instrument. Though the smaller marimbas in examples 1 and 2 have a clear rhythmic performance orientation, the larger instruments of examples 3 and 4 have an equal rhythmic orientation. These instruments, as previously mentioned, are often used as accompaniment to dance. The poly-rhythmic playing style is similar conceptually to a drum ensemble. Crossing rhythms and poly-rhythms, usually associated with drum ensembles, are clearly demonstrated in these marimba ensembles. Each player is assigned two or three notes and the musical requirements of their parts are rhythmically and melodically interlocked.

 The second general category of African marimbas is called the fixed bar type. The main distinction between fixed bar and free bar is that the wooden bars are permanently attached to the frame in the former. Bars are attached by two principal methods: pinned down by wooden pegs which attach to a transverse wooden support by way of a nodal hole, similar to the removable pegs of a log marimba; or strung together and to the frame with a complex system of interwoven twine. These two methods of attachment are meant to be non-removable.


This type of marimba is more widely distributed throughout modern Africa than the free bar types. Fixed bar marimbas are found from the west coast to the east and southern coast. The fixed mode of bar attachment represents a more complexly constructed instrument usually having more formal functions in the musical system from which it comes. It is probable that the free bar marimbas preceded the fixed bar type because of the more formal construction procedures required. Fixed bar marimbas usually have at least six bars such as the Fang endoum of Gabon. Larger instruments include: the 12 bar amadinda and the 22 bar akadinda of the Ganda of Uganda; the 14, 17 and 22 bar kogil of the Lobi-Dagarti of Ghana; the 17 bar marimbas of the Chokwe people of Angola; the 17 bar marimba of the Pende and others from Zaire; the 2, 6, 10, 12, 16, and 19 bar timbila of the Chopi of Mozambique; the 20 bar mbila of the Venda of South Africa; and the balafon of the Malinke and other Mande speakers of West Africa.

The above-mentioned fixed bar marimbas come from musical systems which use these instruments in a variety of settings and ensembles. Fixed bar marimbas are often built for and performed on by professional musicians for formal musical and cultural usage. These marimbas serve complex musical functions. They often are the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic foundation of ensembles of other marimbas, as well as drums, flutes, and/or other instruments. Each of the above-mentioned fixed bar marimba systems can be viewed as a significant point of reference unique and generic to the vocabulary of African marimba music.


The main New World marimba tradition developed in Central America in the 16th century, paralleling the arrival of Africans in slavery. However, the practitioners of this marimba tradition, which flourished in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico from the 18th century onward, were primarily of Amerindian and specifically Mayan background. Many of the Africans dislocated to Central America were originally from marimba-possessing cultures (Curtin, p. 100, and also Gonzalo Aquirre Beltran, La Population Negra de Mexico). Yet, even in the 20th century, Central Americans of African descent rarely play marimba or use it as part of their musical culture.

In South America, particularly on the Columbian coast, a limited marimba tradition exists among people of African descent. This music tends to be more clearly African derived than the music of the Central American marimba traditions. However, the marimba is not widespread in usage among African-South Americans outside of this region.

    An extensive discussion of the Central and South American marimba traditions is beyond the scope of this study. Some research and documentation has   been done on this subject. However, most  studies of the marimba music of Central and South America concentrate on specific techniques or musical aspects and not on the long-term origins of the musical systems. Ethnomusicologist Vida Chenoweth's ground-breaking book, The Marimbas of Guatemala, traces the development of the marimba in Central America from the seventeenth century.This definitive work provides extensive comparison of Guatemalan and other Central American instruments with those of the Chopi people of Mozambique. Though contemporary Mayan tradition considers the marimba indigenous, it is Chenoweth's and other scholars such as Robert Garfias' opinion that the marimba was originally developed in Africa