Polyphony Marimba, founded in 2010 with a mission to get an acoustic ensemble of nine players together who wanted to make a life out of the roots music of southern Africa, while contributing their own creative expression to that tradition. Founder Peter Swing has taught the marimba music of Zimbabwe for 25 years and led four previous part-time ensembles. Polyphony Marimba would take this on the road, into the recording studio, and into the lives of as many people as possible.


Peter & Karyna Swing formed this acoustic ensemble in Santa Fe, NM in the spirit of the original format which Peter received from Dumi Maraire in the late 1980’s: seven marimbas from soprano to bass, shakers (called hosho) keeping the beat, and rich vocal harmonies with spiritual and folk themes from Zimbabwe. From December to March this year Peter has been in Zimbabwe, deepening his understanding of an amazingly rich culture.


Swing learned that the music grows in power and artistry, the more the players put their lives into it, and the larger the audience is that appreciates it. Expanding the cathartic and joyful energy inherent in this music is what Polyphony Marimba is about. Polyphony (pronounced "po-LI-fa-nee") Marimba has played over 300 concerts around North America and has sold over 5,000 copies of its three albums.


Over the last five years, completely self-operated, Polyphony Marimba has established a steady circuit of gigs, particularly in the eastern United States. Originally more than half their gigs were busking on the street. Play this music near any populated area, as they have done in Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, Boston and Asheville, North Carolina, and a crowd instantly gathers, gratefully applauding and buying CDs. The music is beautiful and positively joyful, and attracts listeners like a magnet.


Polyphony Marimba was not born fully grown. Just like humans who mature slow and sure, it has a 25 year gestation period, emerging from the marimba scene in the Pacific Northwest. And that scene has its origins in Zimbabwe during the 1960’s. At that time many African countries were emerging from the yoke of European colonialism. It wasn’t until 1980 that Zimbabwe finally achieved its independence from Britain. But in the meantime it was grappling with the problem of nation building: how do you create a united country that has three quite distinct peoples, Shona, Ndebele and English?


One way was through culture, and at the Kwanongoma College of Music in Bulawayo the idea was to invent an ensemble that could convey the music of all these vastly different people, with no tribal claim by any of them. Thus the marimba ensemble, as carried on by Polyphony Marimba, was invented. Zimbabwe’s neighbor Mozambique has a very old tradition of large xylophone groups, and the balafon of west Africa has been played since ancestral times. Borrowing also from the orchestral structure of western music, and the choral forms of South Africa, the Zimbabwean-style marimba ensemble was born: three soprano marimbas, two tenors, a baritone and bass marimba, all held together with gourd shakers (hosho) keeping the beat.


How did it get to the United States? In 1968 a brilliant student of Kwanongoma College of Music, Dumisani Maraire, was invited to teach as a guest lecturer in the Ethnomusicology Department of the University of Washington in Seattle. A two year contract extended into a residency for the next twenty five years, for the students and people of the Northwest fell in love with Dumi (as he is known) and the music he embodied from Zimbabwe. One of the bands he fostered is Boka Marimba of Portland, Oregon, and it is in Boka that Swing learned the marimba ensemble music from Zimbabwe, beginning in 1987.


At that time there were only a few marimba bands scattered up and down the west coast, with most of them centered in Seattle. But the music is so infectious and fun to play— as well as containing an unmistakable spiritual dimension and great artistic complexity— that there are now marimba bands sprouting up like mushrooms from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine and from Boulder, Colorado down to Austin, Texas.


Polyphony Marimba is devoted to exploring new musical frontiers and we have several brand new compositions to share. These are imbued with the rhythms of southern Africa, but you will also hear the influence of JS Bach, Nina Simone, The Beatles and the like. Who but westerners can lend depth to Polyphony’s original material? We are so happy to have these incredibly talented marimba players join us: Raven Swing, Jesse Larson from Boulder, CO, David Onstott from Albuquerque, NM, Adam Halpin of Spokane, WA, and DeeDee and Tessa Wells of Joplin, MO.

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