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Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band and Drama Group

Sun, April 20th, 2008
3:00 pm

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Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band Crisis and the Amazing Resolution

Ernest Brown, Williams College Professor of Music and Director of the Zambezi Marimba Band is the faculty sponsor of the Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band and Drama Ensemble scheduled to perform at Williams this weekend. He has been working on this event for months with great zeal. He had no idea that he would also become one of the many heroes in a seemingly un-resolvable crisis.

This is the account of the past several days as told by Beth Nissen, Board Member of American Friends of Maru-a-Pula:

The Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band arrived at JFK Sunday morning for their two-week U.S. tour with their carry-ons, their suitcases — but not their marimbas.

When they arrived at Johannesburg International Airport on Saturday morning after their Botswana-to-South Africa bus ride, they learned that since the band had last come to the U.S. in 2002, South African Airways’ baggage/freight definitions and restrictions had changed.  he airline couldn’t put the band’s 10 marimbas — the wooden key boards, the gourds, the iron frames — on the flight.

The group, heartsick, boarded the flight anyway. While they were in the air from Johannesburg, several New York area board members from the American Friends of Maru-a-Pula went into action.

Our mission: find 10 replacement marimbas. Not just any marimbas — Zimbabwean marimbas. And not just any Zimbabwean marimbas — Zimbabwean marimbas that were C Major, with an added F-sharp. And we had to find them fast: the band’s first concert — a $100-a-ticket fundraiser at the Forum in Manhattan — started Monday evening at 7 pm.

We called percussionists at the NY Philharmonic. No Zimbabwean marimbas.

We called the chief marimbist for The Lion King — who returned our call midway through Saturday’s evening performance. No Zimbabwean marimbas.

We posted a notice on a listserve for marimba players and marimba-makers in North America. A woman in Albuquerque replied: she had a baritone marimba — but it was too large to be shipped by Fed Ex, and there wasn’t enough time to ship it by freight or drive it to NY before the Monday concert. Another listserve member helpfully suggested that “if folks are willing to improvise a bit, you could build a complete set of instruments out of cardboard tubes.”

We called Sam Ash music store and searched on PercussionSource.com. (Lesson Learned: you can’t buy Zimbabwean marimbas from stores.)

We called the best-known marimba-makers in Seattle and Santa Cruz, Joplin, Missouri and Idaho. (Lesson Learned: Zimbabwean marimbas are hand-made and custom-ordered; no stock lying about that can be shipped.)

We searched eBay. (Lesson Learned: if there are any unused Zimbabwean marimbas out there, they aren’t up for auction. Marimba LPs, yes. Marimba CDs, yes. Marimbas, no.)

We called the local TV cable station, NY1, and asked for their help in publicizing The Great Search for 10 Zimbabwean Marimbas on a Saturday Afternoon in NYC. Beginning in the 8 pm hour on Saturday, NY1 played a YouTube clip of the Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band, and asked for the public’s help in finding the following list, which they put up on screen:
4 Soprano Marimbas
4 Tenor Marimbas
1 Baritone Marimba
1 Bass Marimba
Tuning tools

The Gods (Marimba Division/Zimbabwean Sub-Division) were with us. Phil Smith, the AFMAP board member in Williamstown who initially suggested the group to the Williams College Department of Music enlisted the help of faculty sponsor Ernest Brown. While the department does own a set of marimbas, they were still not quite the right ones but Ernest knew which direction to point the search.

By Sunday night, Reif Larsen, a fellow board member and the organizer of the Marimba Band’s tour, had connected with a woman named Martha Jenks in Syracuse, NY. Years ago, Martha and her husband had been to a Zimbabwean music festival, and heard the extraordinary marimba-playing of a Zimbabwean music legend, Alport Mhlanga-Astazio. Inspired, they went back to Syracuse and helped form a local marimba group, Kambuyu Marimba. Group members built their own instruments out of wood and PVC piping, gradually building a set.

As it turns out, the same Alport Mhlanga is the director of the Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band. When members of Kambuyu Marimba learned that, they volunteered to loan the Maru-a-Pula group nine of their marimbas — all of the marimbas on the list except for one soprano marimba. Hoping that Kambuyu’s hand-built marimbas would be close enough to the ones Alport had built and the kids had practiced on, Martha and a friend loaded the nine marimbas into a van and left Syracuse before dawn Monday morning for the drive to New York.

What about the 10th marimba? We received a call from the Longs, a family in Queens. They’d seen one of the stories on NY1, pleading for help locating Zimbabwean marimbas. Their 16-yr-old son Nathan had played in a marimba group back in Santa Fe before the family’s move to New York. Yes, his marimba was of the Zimbabwean-style. Yes, it was a C Major with added F-sharp.

Yes, it was a soprano marimba.

Monday morning, Nathan’s mom, Nina Long, drove the 10th marimba from Queens to the Riverdale Country School, the Marimba Band’s NYC base of operations. By this point, e-mail updates we’d been sending were being followed by scores of people — one of them a producer for the CBS Evening News. She persuaded her senior producers to cover the story of the marimba-less marimba band. A CBS camera crew was waiting when the van full of loaned marimbas arrived at about noon from Syracuse.

Alport, the band director, began the task of tuning all 10 instruments. (Somewhat disconcertingly, tuning marimbas can involve an electric sand-blaster…) Then it was the kids’ turn to rehearse. Marimbas are exceptionally difficult to play. For the past three months, for hours each day, the 10 band members have rehearsed with instruments they know by touch, by heart and by ear, down to the last sweet spot on every wood key and slat.

They had only three hours with these new, unfamiliar instruments before they packed them into the tour bus and drove into Manhattan to set up for their first concert — still trailed by the CBS News crew, and now a camera crew from NY-1.

Martha and her friend helped Alport and the kids set up the marimbas. The kids arranged themselves behind the instruments. They stood ready, their marimba hammers raised. Alport started with a quiet drum beat — and the kids began to play.

Beautifully. Joyfully. Song after song. (The Forum concert was recorded live, if you want to hear for yourselves — the recording studio burned CDs overnight, and they’re available now; let me know if you’d like one.)

At the end of the concert, a beaming Martha offered, on behalf of the entire Kambuyu Marimba group to loan us all of her instruments for the duration of the Maru-a-Pula’s band’s two-week concert tour in the New York City and Boston area; the family from Queens did the same. We could now abandon increasingly frustrating efforts to somehow get the band’s original instruments out of a storage bay at the Jo’burg International Airport, through Customs (there), on a SAA flight, and through Customs (here), unaccompanied, by the next big benefit concert on Thursday.

What could have been a disaster yielded great blessings. Through NY1’s story, which aired Monday night, and the CBS Evening News story, which is scheduled to air on Thursday’s newscast, the tour and the school have drawn media attention and publicity we could never have bought. We have high hopes that such news coverage — plus the posting of AFMaP’s links on the NY1 and CBS News websites — will boost ticket sales and attendance for the rest of the tour, along with corresponding donations to the school’s AIDS Orphans Scholarship Fund. Because of this, we’ve already gathered the names and formed strong connections with dozens of new supporters of the Marimba Band and of Maru-a-Pula itself — that’s gold to any non-profit group.

And it’s been a privilege for those of us on the Marimba Crisis Committee to meet, telephonically and online, so many people who were so generous with their time, with the home contact information that put us in touch with the entire North American marimba community on a Saturday, and with their suggestions. Even the cardboard tubes guy took the time to tell us what diameter of tubes we’d need (4″) and where to get them (“most rug or linoleum stores.”)

I want to thank all of you, too. Thank you, all of you who held good thoughts, held your breath, and bit your nails for us. Thank you, those of you who offered up sacrifices to the Gods of Successful Marimba Playing on Instruments the Musicians Only Met Six Hours Before a Concert Being Covered By a National TV Network News Crew and Recorded Live.

Thank you all, in the end, for your support of these extraordinary and amazing young Africans, and the school that is helping them grow into the next generation of Africa’s leaders.

— a grateful Nissen

Because of the work of the many heroes listed above, The Williams College Department of Music will STILL present the award winning Maru-A-Pula School Marimba Band who will perform on Sunday, April 20, at 3 p.m. in Chapin Hall on the Williams College campus. This event is free and open to the public as is the tradition of the Dept. of Music yet as it is part of a fund-raising tour to raise funds for AIDS Orphan Scholarships, there will be an opportunity for voluntary contributions. The students will be hosted and housed by the Williams African Student Organization.

Maru-a-Pula website: http://www.afmap.org/marimba2008.shtml

The “MAP Marimba Band” is Botswana’s topmost marimba ensemble. As winners of BOMA (Botswana Music Awards) and nominees for SAMA (South African Music Awards), their performance of NINE MARIMBAS is one of a kind. This band is unique in that it is made up predominantly of young female performers. These dynamic young people are always a delight to watch, as their hands fly, and hammers pound out original Tswana, Shona, Ndebele, and contemporary vibes, song after song.

Their music is magical. Under the watchful eye, ear and guidance of its founder, director and composer, Alport K. Mhlanga Astazio, the band has been thrilling countless audiences of young and old, high and low status, since 1988. Its music renditions and precision of execution have also reflected its dynamic evolving composition as it drafts in new members.

This year of 2008, the “Map Marimba Band”, with Alport Mhlanga, presents USA & UK follow-up concerts to their scintillating 2002 tour of the USA and Canada! Their infectious therapeutic musical presentations are simply magical! They awaken a wide range of emotions through evocative scintillating earth sounds. Map Marimbas incorporate an irresistible dynamism and thrilling polyphonic rhythmic explosions.

The award-winning Maru-a-Pula School Marimba Band is touring the US in April 2008 to raise funds for AIDS Orphan Scholarships. Located in Gaborone, Botswana, Maru-a-Pula consistently ranks as one of the top schools in all of Africa and regularly sends its students to universities across the US and UK. Many of Botswana’s leaders—ministers, businesswomen, doctors—are all graduates of Maru-a-Pula.

But Maru-a-Pula is in a troubled country: Botswana has one of the highest AIDS rates in the world and currently has more than 80,000 AIDS orphans. In 2005, Maru-a-Pula started funding 2 orphans scholarships, recognizing that many more future leaders were in this population of orphans if only they had the opportunity for a world-class education. The school is now funding 20 full orphan scholarships, and is hoping to raise the money for 60 full scholarships by 2010.

Despite the urgency of its cause, the 2008 Marimba Tour will be a celebration of music and cultural exchange, raising awareness of a continent’s struggles while looking to a future of hope and prosperity. The ten-piece marimba band will be accompanied by Maru-a-Pula’s drama ensemble who will perform an original production about the complex social impact of AIDS in Botswana.


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