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Making marimbas

MSU grad student chronicles his quest to make music with local materials


This story was corrected on Jan. 24 to say Smith studied at East Carolina University.

Perhaps it was an interest born when my son was a high-school percussionist who played a solo marimba piece in a statewide competition.

Or perhaps it was just the uniqueness of someone exploring the possibility of making an instrument from local resources.

Or maybe it was the concept explored in my son’s college and post-college involvement with musical troupes Groove and Juice that created music and instruments from everyday materials.

I’m not quite sure, but I was excited just before the holidays arrived to hear the story of Michigan State University School of Music graduate student Alex Smith and his passionate drive to make a marimba from local materials.

In December, Smith presented the world premiere of his short documentary, “The Michigandered Marimba,” about the process of this challenge, along with an original piece of music written for his new marimba played at the Cook Music Recital Hall. Smith’s journey to MSU began in his home state of North Carolina where he studied percussion in high school. While attending East Carolina University, Smith studied abroad in Brazil and there fell in love with Northeastern folkloric music. He noted that all of their instruments were locally made from local materials, including goats whose hides became drumheads. His teacher introduced him to, Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion mainly practiced in Brazil.

“Candomble is nature,” Smith learned. The story of his Michigan marimba construction is intriguing and inspiring in its own right. Smith was fortunate to find marimba maker Matt Kazmierski, owner of Planet Marimba in Plymouth, who was willing to help Smith design and build it.

The initial difficulty was in finding a suitable replacement for the traditional but exotic rosewood that is used in most marimbas, including the ones that Kazmierski makes by hand. Smith and Kazmierski tested a lot of local woods, finally settling on sassafras. The next challenge was finding material to use as resonators, the long tubes that hang below each wooden bar. They ultimately worked with some cardboard tubes.

Smith is now folding this work into his thesis and hopes to travel to Ghana soon to study from their musical tradition and instruments. While he admits that the sassafras does not have quite the same sound as the rosewood, he believes that we all should be willing to open up to changing our sound aesthetics. This is clearly what the spreading and fusion of world music has helped to do. While he doesn’t expect everyone to make their own instruments, he thinks even young students would benefit from understanding how, where and from what and whom their instruments have been made. This is clearly one notion at the heart of sustainability.

Rosewood, traditionally the prized wood for marimbas, is not grown in many places.

Where it is grown, the local people use it for many purposes in their daily lives. Looking for suitable and local materials that can be used instead of exotic and dis tant materials is a good exercise — in music, food and so much else that is important in our lives.

Fortunately, the Lansing area is home to much good local music from many musical traditions. Coming up soon is the 14th annual MidWinter Singing Festival at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center, started by longtime community fireball Sally Potter.

The local instruments are the voices of local neighbors coming together to experience the joy of shared song. Thanks to Potter, this event has been highlighted nationally and other communities have tried to replicate it. There is something special and deeply moving being in the 500- seat auditorium in the Hannah Center and joining friends old and new with the song that opens and closes the festival, “How Can I Keep From Singing?” There’s nothing better than local and sustainable music. Thanks are due to Alex Smith and Sally Potter for helping us experience it.

‘The Michigandered Marimba’

Is available to watch at youtube.com/watch?v=kDqBIMFpWIA


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