Marimba Keeps a Culture Alive in Chicago
A centuries-old instrument helps youth of Guatemalan background preserve their heritage.
For WBEZ, Catalina Maria Johnson has the story on marimba music in Chicago.
If you happen to travel down a quiet side street near Austin and Grand, you may be surprised to hear the unmistakable sound of a marimba coming from one of the houses
Marimba It's the place where two times a week, several young people come together to practice as the ensemble “Marimba Ixchel”. Named for “Ixchel”, the Mayan Goddess of creativity, the young people connect to their Guatemalan heritage through the marimba, a musical instrument that has been declared the National Instrument and National Symbol of Guatemala.
Marimba music played by Ixchel
It is the Guatemalan identity of the instrument that appeals to young people like Vanessa Carrado
Its unique to Guatemala, the marimba specifically, everyone has, like the salsa is everywhere, but the marimba is unique to Guatemala
Like most marimba groups, Marimba Ixchel´s musicians play two marimbas whose large keyboards are struck with two or three mallets
It is a complex, richly textured music produced by at least seven musicians, as Adrian Aldana and Alissa Carrado explain
CMJ on tape
Each one of you is playing a different part?
I was playing the bajo, here we have centro which is the upbeat, here we have your main voices, and your secondary voices
Marimba Ixchel giving examples on tape
Right here and here we play the actual melody, the actual notes and stuff, we have to maintain ourselves within their beat. They keep us on track…this is the song we were playing, “Ferrocarril”
In addition, the young people learn to play ancient percussion instruments from the Mayan tradition. Andrea Gomez explains.
It is the Tun, and accompanies the bajo, it´s like percussion,
CMJ on tape
And this one?
GOMEZ Chin Chin
CMJ on tape
Being Mexican it looks to me like a maraca (kids laughter)
GOMEZ plays Chin Chin and Tun
Mayan instruments such as the Tun are the predecessors of the marimba. Guatemala´s history has deep roots in the indigenous Mayan culture. The group's musical director, Carlos Mejía explains
Sounding caracol (seashell) and praying in Mayan
Si se habla de una tradicion como Mayas no es tradicion, es esencia, cosmovision, espiritualidad, mentalidad, activista, pueblo, familia, y las celebraciones, casamientos, ferias, también calendario maya…lo musical es un complemento. If we speak of the Mayan tradition, it´s not just a tradition, it´s an essential cosmic vision, it includes spirituality, thinking, activism, a people and family and celebrations: marriage, festivals, the Mayan calendar…the music is a complement to it all…
The marimbas of Guatemala are special in that they use wood from the hormigo tree, which grows only in the forests of that country, and in ancient times, were believed to communicate with the Creator. In fact, the Mayan word for “marimba” is “ko jom” or “wood that sings”. An organization that Mejía co-founded, the Mayan Folkloric Organization, is working to save the tree. A parent of a Marimba Ixchel musician, Maybeline Aldana says the group also visits Guatemala regularly and takes donations to schools, orphanages and nursing homes.
...its not only to help the kids learn the culture but also for them to learn the great gift of giving especially to the Guatemalan people that need our help…
CMJ There are an estimated eighty thousand or so Guatemalans in Chicago today AND organizations like Marimba Ixchel and the Mayan Folkloric Organization are working to keep the culture alive.
FOR WBEZ, I´m Catalina Maria Johnson --
OUTRO This weekend, the Mayan Folkoric Organization will be holding an open house, and Marimba Ixchel will be playing at the Nuestra Música: Latino Chicago tent at the Old Town Folk and Roots Festival. For more information, please visit our website at WBEZ.org