The marimba became Costa Rica’s National Musical Instrument in 1996,when, then President José María Figueres formalized it. At that time the marimba was at the lowest point of its popularity. It came into use in Costa Rica in the late 18th century after its introduction through the Mesoamerican peoples of Guatemala and those of Guanacaste.
Today, the traditional music played on the marimba is linked to the religious, cultural and social fabric of Costa Rica. The folkloric music and accompanying dances played on the marimba are performed at school gatherings, public ceremonies, during patriotic national holidays, and other festivals.
Bands entertaining here at Blue River Resort & Hot Springs Hotel, located on the north side of Rincon de la Vieja, Guanacaste, usually include the Marimba and other traditional instruments. Marimbas are to Costa Rica what the Bagpipes represent to Scotland, the Bouzouki to Greece, or the Ukulele to Hawaii.
Although Ticos feel the marimba is musically symbolic of Costa Rica, its origins are neither local nor American. The marimba made its way to Costa Rica from other neighboring countries and is also claimed as Guatemala’s National Instrument.
Historians have two opinions on the origins of the marimba and how it made its way to the shores of Costa Rica. One view says it originated in Southeast Asia during the 14th century. The other version plots a trail back to the continent of Africa. Though we are sure the marimba did not originate in Central America, where did it really come from?
The story of the marimba coming from Southeast Asia is linked to the arrival of Franciscan priests who came to the New World as missionaries. At a time when the Spanish were searching for gold and precious stones, Catholicism spread along with the Conquistadors. If it is the Franciscan missionaries who brought the marimba with them to Guanacaste via Mexico and Guatemala that would have been before the 16th century.
The other explanation suggests that the marimba comes from Africa. This appears to be sensible since detailed records about slaves coming from Africa to the region describe an instrument strikingly similar to the marimba developed and widely used in Africa centuries before their arrival. This appears to be plausible since detailed records recount slaves coming from Africa to the region. An instrument strikingly similar to the marimba is described as accompanying them as it was developed and widely used by them in Africa centuries before their arrival.
It is possible they brought the knowledge of how to craft a primitive version of the modern day instrument with them. The marimba could have been made from materials that were readily available. They would have used it for recreational purposes, as they were far away from home.
The Bantu tribe is the most likely people to have brought the knowledge of its design with them to Mexico, South America, and the Isthmus of Panama on the Pacific Coast. History details the travels of the African Bantu tribe which journeyed, first as slaves, then as paid laborers. Labor has always been scarce in the region throughout the early colonization and development of the Central America region; from Mexico to Peru. The native Indians of Central America were frail bodied and were unaccustomed to hard labor. Many natives died from diseases introduced by the new masters and in a short time only a few remained. The available facts support the theory that the marimbas introduction took hold through local Indians living in Central America by the Africans. They certainly introduced it throughout Guatemala, Nicaragua and then into Guanacaste.
The marimba is a member of the Idiophone group of instruments. It is a percussion class instrument like those that emit a tone when a solid material is struck and vibrates producing a tone without strings or other membranes. Xylophones, Gongs, and Rattles, are also part of this group of instruments which vibrates producing a sound. The marimba is considered a crude, earlier version of the modern-day Xylophone. Constructed by suspending wooden strips horizontally beside each other forming keys. Beneath the key a resonator, like the Calabash (a gourd), Bamboo or other tubular material, amplifies the tone of the key that is struck. A mallet is used to hit the key to produce the necessary vibration and thus a musical note. Each mallet has a head attached at one end, made of wood, rubber, plastic or stone, and sometimes covered with a woven cord netting.
There are other versions of the marimba in the Central American region, all with similar characteristics and only minor variations. Those found in modern-day Guanacaste are traditionally made using strips of wood placed side-by-side like piano keys. Beneath the wooden keys, a gourd is suspended. Nowadays, a section of hollow brass or aluminum pipe will also serve as a resonator. Each key and its resonator produces a different pitch.
The keyboard on a modern Costa Rican marimba will have one or two levels. Those secondary keys extend the range of tones like the black and white keys of the piano. Smaller marimbas have a range of between 4 ⅓ to 5 octaves. While larger marimbas have extended ranges of up to 6 ½ octaves. Irrespective of the size of the instrument it can be played by a single, two, or three players, together in unison. Each player will use as many as four mallets in each hand to tap out the notes of a song. When multiple players perform they stand shoulder-to-shoulder on one side of the marimba, with the audience on the other side. The coordinated movements of the players is an entertaining part of the show. Years ago, women were considered the star performers. Today men are more often seen playing and it is not unusual to see a family of four harmonizing together.
Guanacaste is considered the home of the marimba in Costa Rica, where it is featured at all public events, parties, bull fights, and festivals. Ticos and Ticas dressed in colorful outfits dance to romantic melodies or foot stomping rhythms coming from the marimba. Accompanying instruments may include guitars, horns, and maracas. Other traditional musical instruments may be used to complete the ensemble such as:
The Quijongo: a single string bow with a gourd resonator.
The Jicara: a dried gourd like a Calabash filled with beads, or used as a part of another instrument.
The Chirimia: a wind instrument producing sounds like the Oboe.
The Ocarina: an ancient oval shaped flute, with four to twelve holes producing varying tones.
Costa Rica’s signature marimba song is ‘Punto Guanacasteco’ a lively folk-rhythm performed by brightly costumed dancers, as seen in the video above.
Next time you are in Guanacaste visit Blue River Costa Rica Resort and Hot Springs which is located along the north side of Rincon de la Vieja. Dinner at the Tiki Bar & Restaurant overlooks the hot spring pools, the lush rainforest gardens and distant views of the majestic volcano. Occasionally a marimba band plays for our guests. Dancing under the stars to the melodies created by the national musical instrument of Costa Rica will be a memorable experience.