On his front porch, Antonio Ortiz practices a dying art.
For five decades, Ortiz has built marimbas. But marimbistas like Ortiz are becoming rare. The marimba is the national instrument of Costa Rica, but marimba-making has become an endangered craft in the country.
The 78-year-old Ortiz works away in a rectangular room containing a table saw, planks of bálsamo wood and pig tripe. He is missing half of his index finger on his right hand. “A symbol of the work,” he called it.
He takes a mallet and hits a key on a large, auburn-colored marimba in the corner of the room. It resonates a baritone groan. Ortiz accelerates down the line until he hears the high-pitched wail at the other end of the instrument. Ortiz, who lives in the eastern San José suburb of San Pedro, has been fiddling with marimbas ever since he learned how to play them in his 20s.
“I wanted to have my own marimbas,” he said. “Then I started to learn to build them.”
Born in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, birthplace of the marimba in Costa Rica, Ortiz played marimba at festivals all over the country when he was younger, and was something of a star. Neighborhood kids and students still watch him play. But few are interested in understanding how to assemble this cumbersome percussion instrument. The marimba’s future is further complicated by deforestation of the bálsamo trees that provide the wood for making the instruments, Ortiz said. He hopes the government starts doing more to prevent the instrument from becoming a relic in Costa Rica.
Ortiz and four other marimbistas lamented the lack of government intervention at a recent forum at the SpanishCulturalCenter in eastern San José’s Barrio Escalante. The five expert marimba-makers explained the meticulous effort that goes into building the instrument. The profession showed its age with Ortiz and an 80-year-old marimbista known as Tomasito sitting on the panel. Also on the board was Jorge Monge from the western suburb of Escazú, who has made marimbas for 20 years, and 25-year-old Eduardo Villafuerte from Guanacaste.
The final marimba-maker, Miguel Torres, arrived late and to ecstatic cheers. Torres, who won the country’s National Pop Culture Award in 1992, seems to have achieved a bizarre, quasi-rock-star status among marimba aficionados. Most of the questions during the Q-and-A session that followed the panel discussion were directed toward him.
The marimbistas explained about how the disappearance of bálsamo trees is hurting the survival of the instrument. Most of them rejected other types of woods or PVC pipe as suitable replacements.
A marimba looks like an oversized xylophone that needs wooden legs to stand. A cable runs through the 25 or more keys, holding them together. When a note is hit, the sound cascades into a resonation box that hangs like a stalactite underneath the corresponding key. The noise echoes toward a tiny hole in the bottom of the box.
The holes produce notes according to their size, arranged from largest (bass) to smallest (treble). Each hole is surrounded by a ring of wax. A fragile layer of pig tripe is adhered to the ring. Instead of producing the sharp, piercing noise emitted from striking a xylophone, the membrane generates a hum that lingers in the humidity.
The mallets (bollilos) used to play the marimba come in multiple sizes. The largest, softest mallet heads go with the bass notes. Smaller, harder heads hammer the treble keys. Marimbas are often played in unison by multiple marimberos.
The panel discussion ended with the five panelists decrying the marimba’s waning popularity in Costa Rica. Ortiz noted the government of Guatemala takes a more active role in supporting its own marimba heritage.
The night closed with a demonstration of how beautiful the vanishing instrument can sound. Torres and Villafuerte took the lead to the delight of the audience. The baby-faced Villafuerte might be one of the youngest marimba-makers in the country, but he adores his profession. The dedication reverberated in his playing.
“The first time marimbas interested me outside of studying marimba music in high school was when I decided to do work repairing marimbas,” Villafuerte said. “They didn’t pay me, but still I repaired them. And soon I loved the work.”
New Culture Minister Manuel Obregón insists the government does plan to step in and help find more young marimba players like Villafuerte. In an interview last month, Obregón told The Tico Times there is a proposal to have 10 children learn marimba-making from Torres. Future plans would have the program expand across the country, he said, adding it would take “small economic support” to make “a big change for future generations.”
“We need to work with young people to let them know the marimba is not just something that sits in a museum or is played for tourists. It has applications for contemporary music,” Obregón said.
Obregón, a piano virtuoso in his own right, showed savvy in his marimba knowledge. He referenced the instrument’s African and Mayan influences. He mentioned the need for reforestation of bálsamo trees. In a final flourish, the maestro dubbed the instrument as “the piano of Central America.”
The name seems appropriate. Marimbas arrived in Central America from Africa in the 16th century. The instrument’s name comes from the Bantu language and means “wood that can sing.” When Ortiz and his son, José Luis, give a rendition, they can make the marimba ring like a symphony. Ortiz’s favorite piece to play is an opus he wrote himself called “The Serenade of the Pampas.”
Ortiz takes up to three months to make a marimba. He ships most to individual buyers in the United States for $3,000. Business outside the country is better than within Costa Rica, but still it’s dwindling. As Ortiz approaches his sixth decade of marimba-making, he wonders if a revival of the marimba tradition might already be too late.
“We are losing many of the ancestral grandfathers who used to play the marimba at parties, at every celebration,” he said.
Tico Times freelancer Jeffrey Van Fleet contributed to this story