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The magic of marimbas

April 21, 2010

Fernando Meza with concert marimba.

Fernando Meza plays a concert marimba, an instrument that delights audiences around the world.

The world's top players kick off a festival next Wednesday with a free concert at Ted Mann

By Deane Morrison

When he was 17, a young musician named Fernando Meza attended a convention for percussionists.

At the time he was a timpanist, a player of kettledrums. But that changed when he heard what the world's foremost player, Keiko Abe, could do with the marimba.

"I was blown away by her artistry," says Meza, who promptly made the marimba the focus of his life.

Now director of percussion studies at the University of Minnesota School of Music, Meza is sharing his love of the instrument through Marimba 2010, an international festival and conference that brings the world's top players to the Twin Cities for three days of music-making.

The festival opens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 28, with a free concert at the U's Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 4th St. S., Minneapolis. Among the artists on the bill are the U of M Marimba Ensemble, whom Meza will conduct as they provide the soundtrack for the silent film "The Invisible Men."

A performance Friday, April 30, in the St. Paul Cathedral will surround the audience with 20 marimbas. Meza will perform in that concert, which features the professional choir VocalEssence and includes pieces by School of Music alumni Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus.

The festival also brings world-renowned marimba ensembles from Guatemala—where it is the national instrument—Mexico, and Costa Rica, as well as individual artists like Serbia's Nebojsa Zivkovic, who will perform a marimba concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra.

It's a rare chance to hear the best marimbists. "People may never see anything like this here again," Meza notes.

Wood that sings

The marimba consists of keys laid out like a piano keyboard. Beneath each key is a resonator, or tube, that amplifies the sound; the longer the resonator, the lower the pitch. Folk marimbas have wooden resonators, while those of the concert marimba are made of brass or aluminum. The keys are played with mallets, and different kinds of mallets allow players to vary the tone.

A native of Costa Rica, Meza has listened to marimba music his whole life. He says some people attribute its origins to China through a stone instrument called the lithophone many centuries ago, but no one is sure. That doesn't stop anyone from claiming it, though.

"In Guatemala, they would probably say the marimba came from divine intervention," he muses.

Whatever its origins, the name comes from Africa.

"In the Bantu language, it means 'wood that sings,'" Meza explains.

Today, the marimba sings all over the world, thanks to an explosion in its repertoire over the past four decades. Meza has become a well-known performer, having recorded with Abe in Japan and played with the Minnesota Orchestra. He is partial to contemporary music, but as the Bach Courante that accompanies this article shows, he's no slouch at Baroque either.

Most of all, he wants let people know how the marimba has become part of cultures everywhere.

"My dream is to bring the world together through music, this instrument in particular," Meza says.

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

audioMarimba goes Baroque

This audio recording is the Courante from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 in C major, played by Fernando Meza on the five-octave marimba.

Visit the Marimba 2010 International Festival and Conference website for a full schedule, artists' links, and more.

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