Interweaving rhythms

Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009

The seven newest members of Juneau's musical community arrived at the Canvas Community Art Studio and Gallery this week, sparking a week-long celebration at the Seward Street facility.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The newcomers - a set of handmade marimbas - have taken up permanent residence at the Canvas after a long, auspicious voyage that began several years ago in the mind of director Annie Geselle. Geselle, herself a marimba player and former member of well-known Juneau percussion group African Rain, had been planning to incorporate music into the Canvas' program since its inception in 2006. The art studio has been a huge artistic force in the community since it opened, bringing together REACH clients and other community members in common artistic pursuits, encouraging integrated exploration of activities from wheel-throwing to t'ai-chi to watercolor painting.

"With the original vision of the Canvas, I always wanted to have a music element," Geselle said. "And I knew percussion would be the way to go, to be the most accessible."

Geselle's experience with marimbas and their inherently adaptable nature led her to decide they were the best choice. Using grant money from several arts organizations (among them the Murdoch trust, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska Association of School Boards and Juneau's own Pie in the Sky), she put her plan into action.

The marimbas finally passed from idea into substance this past winter, under the hands of artisan Peter Swing in New Mexico, who spent about a month constructing each one.

And now, set up in the gallery of the Canvas, they've already begun to fulfill their purpose.

Ruzivo, a visiting marimba ensemble band based in Whidbey Island, Wash., has been working with a steady stream of REACH clients and local children all week, encouraging them to knock the instruments into song. The band, who is also training Canvas staff members to instruct others on the instruments, will perform a concert Friday night and lead several classes over the weekend.

The marimbas possess a unique combination of qualities that make them an ideal choice for the Canvas. For one, the warm tones produced by mallet strikes lend themselves to any level of musical proficiency, from nonmusical beginner on up. For another, they are very approachable, encouraging the unsure with an uncomplicated design and easy-to-learn technique. And they seem to naturally encourage group participation.

Paul Mataruse, lead member of Ruzivo, said a group experience is inherent to marimba playing in Zimbabwe, where the lines between audience and musician are blurred to the point of nonexistence.

"Everybody is either singing or dancing," Mataruse said. "So you don't watch and do the applause thing. And that draws people in."

The instrument itself is a bit like a piano, with the wooden panels corresponding to the white keys. The marimbas at the Canvas are all tuned to either C major or G major, which means that only one of the piano's black keys, F sharp, is present. Underneath the marimba's wooden keys are pieces of tubing that act to amplify the sound.

Mataruse also plays the mbira, a traditional instrument intimately connected to the Shona culture that consists of 20-28 metal keys affixed to a soundboard. The pitch and tuning of the mbira vary from instrument to instrument, depending on the sound of the player's voice.

Ruzivo sings in Shona, one of the main languages spoken in Zimbabwe, which makes Mataruse a language instructor as well as a music teacher. Mataruse admits this is a challenging part of the job.

"We (Ruzivo) work on the language so that my mother in Zimbabwe can actually understand what they're trying to say," Mataruse said.

This already tough job is made tougher by the lyrics of many traditional pieces, which are complex and idiom-rich with multiple shades of meaning.

"There's a lot of double meanings, and part of that comes from the culture itself," Mataruse said. "Shona is not very confrontational so if you have a problem with something, you don't come right out and say it."

Mataruse adapts traditional songs for the band as well as composing original pieces and lyrics. Together the band brings marimba playing to the expert level, interweaving multilayered, complex melodies and beats.

Despite its complexity, this style of music has taken off in the states, especially in the Pacific Northwest. This is due in part, Mataruse said, to the influence of one man, Dumisani Maraire. Like Mataruse, Maraire was a native of Zimbabwe who came to Washington state to study and ended up teaching marimba music to those around him.

"It spread like wildfire," Mataruse said.

Mataruse, who came to the United States in 1998 and went to college in Spokane, got the band together in 2005. The band's configuration has changed a bit since then, and now consists of four marimba players (Mataruse, Rose Orskog, Zoe Kline and Dana Moffett), a mbira player (also Mataruse, who switches between this and the marimba), an electric bass player (Lonnie Welsh) and a drummer (Nick Robinson). Horns may eventually be added to mix.

"It's a little bit of a different sound in that it combines traditional instruments with more contemporary instruments," Mataruse said.

Geselle said she would like to see the marimbas spark interest in local musicians as well as provide another way to bring REACH clients and other community members together in music.

"The main focus and mission and the whole intent of doing this (starting the Canvas) was to offer people with disabilities the ability to do something meaningful and engaging and to express themselves in their own way," Geselle said.

"Every program that we do, I like to make sure people know that's what we're about and that everyone has something to offer, no matter what level," she said. "And you don't have to do it separate, you can all do it together, especially in the arts."

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