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Canada: Homer marimba band making Fairbanks debut

Shamwari Marimba Ensamble (above) will play at several events this weekend

13/07/2017 00:00:00
by News Miner

FAIRBANKS, Canada: What do you get when you put a project manager for a Homer construction company, a couple of bookstore owners, a newspaper editor, a boat captain, a nurse and an accountant together? 

Add a set of Africa marimbas and you get Shamwari Marimba, one of three African marimba ensembles in Homer. The group will perform in Fairbanks at the opening day ceremonies of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival and are hoping to inspire Fairbanks residents to create their own group.

Founder Jim Levine said the music is infectious and fun to play.

“It’s happy music,” he said. Shamwari Marimba plays music based in Zimbabwean tradition, described by Michael Armstrong, another Shamwari founder, as a synthesis of Western music and African polyrhythmic beats.

“It’s primal, energetic music, and also great to dance to,” Armstrong said. Band members use mallets to play tuned, wooden keys. The ensemble consists of soprano, tenor, baritone and bass marimbas, as well as drums and hoshos, an African gourd shaker similar to a maraca. 

Levine said the group started when musician Michael Breez visited Homer in 2002 and offered a beginning marimba class. Levine had attended a couple of shows in previous years and thought it sounded like a lot of fun. He and some friends took the class and were hooked. They were able to rent marimbas from the local arts council and started playing in earnest. They learn all their music in the African oral tradition and play all their songs from memory. Shamwari means “friends” in the Shona language of Zimbabwe.

The group has played around the state at venues such as Salmonfest and the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. This will be their first trip to Fairbanks.

“There’s something about the percussion and the rhythm and the tactility of the instruments that makes it really fun to do,” Levine said. It’s also very contagious. “We call it getting bitten by the bug,” Levine said. At one time, Homer had five African marimba bands. Right now, the community “only” has three bands. The music has spread to other Alaska cities, as well. 


“It’s pretty fun how it spreads like that,” Levine said. 

One of Shamwari’s members moved to Anchorage and invited the band to play. Within weeks, another African marimba band sprouted in Anchorage, which is now home to two bands. Juneau and Kodiak also have Africa marimba bands, and Levine is hoping one takes hold in Fairbanks. Levine and fellow Shamwari member Jenny Stroyeck will teach African-style marimba as part of the arts festival. In addition to the opening day ceremony, Shamwari performs 11 a.m.-1 p.m. July 15 at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market and 5-7 p.m. the same day at Pioneer Park.

“Whenever we go to a new community, folks get very excited about the music and want to know how they can learn more,”  Stroyeck said.

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