Decked out in a comfortable and colorful assortment of dashikis, shorts, and sandals, the eclectic Masanga Marimba lit up the UCSB Music Bowl with an interactive and educational performance on Wed., April 11th at noon.
The ensemble performed energetic music from Zimbabwe and Latin Americas as part of the World Music Series, a weekly concert co-presented by the UCSB MultiCultural Center and Ethnomusicology Program of the Department of Music.
Masanga Marimba is a seven-member ensemble that plays primarily on a set of seven marimbas, wooden Zimbabwean instruments resembling xylophones. Led by Ric Alviso, a professor of world music and ethnomusicologist at California State University, Northridge, the group’s performance was a charming mix of instrumentation, vocals, education, and audience interaction.
Formed in 2000, the ensemble consists of a diverse group of California State University, Northridge music department graduates who play part-time in addition to their full-time jobs. This is reflected in the group’s name: “Masanga,” meaning the coming together of two rivers, or paths,” explained ensemble member Risa Isogawa in an interview with The Bottom Line after the show.
“We’re all from different backgrounds, culturally and musically. For example, we have Alex, who’s a jazz drummer, and Monica, who’s a choral and piano accompanist. And then we play music from Zimbabwe, South Africa, and then Latin America. So it’s just all kinds of different things coming together: the music comes together, the performers come together, and then we bring people together.”
Isogawa’s observation that music brings people together was spot on — as soon as the ensemble began performing, the UCSB music bowl filled up with curious audience members. As the show progressed, ensemble members passed out hoshos, or Zimbabwean shakers that resemble larger maracas, and encouraged the audience to follow the beat of the performance. The level of audience immersion only increased as the ensemble’s performance continued: Alviso prompted the audience to sing along to the group’s songs and even to play the marimbas.
In between songs, Alviso provided informative commentary about Zimbabwean culture, music, and instruments. In Zimbabwe, he explained, many schools don’t have the funds for string or brass instruments. Instead, most have access to raw materials like wood. Gesturing to the set of marimbas, Alviso said that most school bands consist of a group of marimbas similar to the one used by the ensemble.
The marimba wasn’t the only instrument featured by the ensemble, however. Alviso also brought out a mbira, the national instrument of Zimbabwe. Resembling a black bowl, the instrument is made of fiberglass and has a sound similar to a steel drum. After explaining that Zimbabwean culture considers the instrument to be sacred, using it in important ceremonies, Alviso led a performance with the bright sound of the mbira at the forefront.
Alviso also played the musical bow, an instrument resembling a bow and arrow. The bow, he explained, was one of the earliest musical instruments in the South African culture, stopping in between bits of commentary to play snippets of songs for the audience. Moments like this were the norm for the show, which was as educational and informative as it was entertaining.
Besides the music, the ensemble’s interactions with each other were similarly interesting and charming. It wasn’t uncommon to see the members of the group looking over at each other and smiling or making eye contact before deciding to alter the song in some way. The interactive and improvisational nature of their performance, Isogawa explained, is normal for the group.
“A lot of [the performance] is improvised; we do have a structure, but we definitely play with it a lot. We’re all educated musicians and all have at least a Bachelor’s degree in music, so we’re able to play around with musical theory and play off each other like that.”
The performance concluded with Alviso calling for audience members to play the marimbas alongside the ensemble’s final song, beginning first by showing each volunteer which note to play in addition to directions for volume control. Once the volunteers began to get more comfortable and the climax of the song approached, however, Alviso excitedly gave them full reign to play whichever notes they wished.
The result was a wonderfully hectic, lively, mixture of sounds and laughter that reflected exactly the parting sentiment that Isogawa shared: “Music really just draws people together, brings people of different backgrounds together, and unites people. And the music from Zimbabwe is just another way of doing that.”