our story so far...
first touring group 2012, martha's vinyard, MA
(left to right) Karyna Swing, Peter Swing, Raven Swing, Anna Hake, Ansel Carpenter, Harlin Pierce, Brian Crane (not in pic, Ethan Walsh)
"you are pioneers"
Polyphony Marimba was founded in 2010 and has grown steadily with six national tours, three albums, and an ever-expanding fan base. Our mission is to create and sustain an acoustic ensemble of nine players who want to make a life out of the roots music of southern Africa, while contributing our own creative expression to that tradition.
Founder Peter Swing has taught the music of Zimbabwe for 30 years and has led several previous ensembles, while keeping an active shop building Zimbabwean style marimbas which are sold coast to coast. He and several other bandmates have made repeated visits to Zimbabwe as well as South Africa and Botswana, to study with the masters and soak up the deep ancestry that permeates the land and people there. Polyphony Marimba is the culmination and fulfillment of that experience.
Peter & Karyna Swing, together with Peter's son Raven, formed this acoustic ensemble in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the spirit of the original format which Peter received from Dumi Maraire in the late 1980’s. We play seven marimbas: three sopranos, two tenors, a baritone and a huge bass, with hosho (gourd shakers) and hand drums keeping the beat. About half our repertoire is instrumental and then we love to sing in rich vocal harmonies with spiritual and folk themes, often in the characteristic call-and-response African fashion. 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 all about. Polyphony (rhymes with 'Epiphany') Marimba has played over 300 concerts around North America and we have sold over 5,000 CDs; these days we also enjoy regular play on streaming services such as Spotify.
2015 touring ensemble
(Above, left to right: Maren Padovan-Hickman, Raven Swing, Jesse Larson, Tara Padovan-Hickman, Keenan McDonald, Karyna Swing, Peter Swing; below, Jesse Garcia, DeLaura Padovan)
Over the last eight years, completely self-operated, Polyphony Marimba has established a steady circuit of gigs, particularly in the eastern United States. Originally more than half of our gigs were busking on the street. Play this music near any populated area, as we have done in Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, Boston and Asheville, North Carolina, and a crowd instantly gathers, gratefully applauding and purchasing our recordings to take the music home with them. Our sound is big, organic, beautiful and powerful, with an intriguing familiarity that attracts listeners like a magnet: so many times we have started playing in an empty square or park and within a couple songs we are surrounded by smiling curious people.
roots in zimbabwe
(Left, Dumisani Maraire, PhD, the father of Zimbabwe-style marimba ensembles in North America)
Polyphony Marimba is the end result of a great deal of experience in this music by the Swings and all the musicians who play in the band, who are some of the top marimba players in the USA. Just like people who mature slow and sure, Polyphony had 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, in the form Polyphony Marimba inherited, was invented. Zimbabwe’s neighbor Mozambique has a very old tradition of large xylophone groups, and neighboring Zambia also has traditional marimba groups going back countless generations. Borrowing also from the orchestral structure of western music, and the choral forms of South Africa and Europe, the Zimbabwean-style marimba ensemble was born.
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.
(Ashland, Oregon, summer 2018)
One of the bands Dumi fostered, through a series of intensive workshops, is Boka Marimba of Portland, Oregon. Another very notable teacher of that group and many others around the US, was Ephat Mujuru, a legendary mbira player who taught in a more traditional manner, simply sharing the powerful songs of his ancestors. Beginning in 1987, Boka Marimba was the incubator for Swing to learn the songs --and understand the structure-- of Zimbabwean music as played in a marimba ensemble. At that time there were only a few marimba bands scattered up and down the West Coast; but the music is so infectious and fun to play, that there are now marimba bands sprouting up around the whole country and indeed around the world.
going strong in 2020
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 Bach and Beethoven, Nina Simone and Paul Simon, the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
Who but westerners can lend depth to Polyphony’s original material? We are so happy to have these incredibly talented marimba players join us: Jesse Larson from Boulder, CO, David Onstott from Albuquerque, NM, Adam Halpin of Spokane, WA, DeeDee and Tessa Wells of Joplin, MO, Conrad Rice from Eugene, OR, and Branson Seamons from Coeur d’Alene, ID.
We are hard at work on our fourth album and as of May 2020 embarking on our seventh American tour. Recorded or live, we invite you to check out our energetic natural sound emanating from the depths of southern Africa, lifting our hearts and joining us together in a joyful music experience!
Polyphony marimba 2019-2020
(on the road in Asheville, NC, left to right) David Onstott, Tessa Wells, Branson Seamons, Jesse Larson, Adam Halpin, Conrad Rice, Karyna Swing, Peter Swing, DeeDee Wells