The marimba is a percussive instrument made of wooden bars that are struck with mallets. Tubular or gourd resonators hang down from each of the bars, with their vibrations amplifying the sound and creating a rich texture to the music. The marimba and the xylophone are very similar in structure. Many believe they share the same origins but evolved separately beginning around 1500, with the xylophone developing in Europe and the marimba developing in Latin America.
The origin of the marimba is steeped in controversy. There are three theories about its early development. One credits the Mayan people as the original creators and developers of the instrument. Another theory says that the marimba traces its origins to West Africa and was brought to Guatemala by African slaves in 1595. Still another theory proposes that it first developed in Indochina (Southeast Asia) before it was introduced to Africa and then Central and South America. Even the origin of the name, marimba, is unknown. Some believe it comes from the Bantu languages, while others say it was the name of an African goddess.
Various versions of the marimba are played in the United States, the African nations of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the Latin American countries of Cuba, Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru. However, nowhere is the marimba more celebrated and central to the identity of its people than in Guatemala. The country declared marimba its national instrument in 1978; a monument was erected in Quetzaltenango to celebrate the occasion. The instrument was also declared a Guatemalan national symbol in 1999. The marimbas of Guatemala are unique in that they only use wood from the hormigo tree, which grows only in the forests of Guatemala.
The marimba was originally played at the community ceremonies and celebrations of the indigenous people of Guatemala. During that time, the marimba was associated with lewdness and drunkenness because of its association with the Mayan people and their “pagan” rituals. However, Catholic evangelists eventually incorporated the marimba into their ceremonies to lend credence to their religion. In 1894, Guatemalan Sebastián Hurtado invented the chromatic marimba, which contained two rows of keys instead of one.
Throughout its development and up to the present day, the marimba and the Mayan people have alternated between periods of acceptance and periods of persecution. Even today, despite being considered a symbol of Guatemalan culture, the marimba is a source of contention and strife. Even the declaration of marimba as a national symbol occurred during a period of genocide against the Mayan people. Many Ladinos (non-indigenous Guatemalans) contest the contribution of the Mayans to the modern chromatic marimba. The controversy over the marimba’s origins and heritage continues to be a struggle for identity and power in Guatemala today.