marimba de arco

Title: Music in Latin American Culture: Regional Traditions—Aquella (That Woman); Martines Brothers, Nicaraguan marimba de arco trio (field recording by T. M. Scruggs, 1990, accompanying Scruggs 1999). Label: Schirmer Books. Format: CD. Catalogue#: ISBN 0-02 865330-0. Track: 11.

Contextual Associations

The marimba de arco is a diatonic xylophone idiophone of the mestizo peoples of Nicaragua. It is closely associated with Saint’s Day celebrations revolving around the Catholic religious calendar as observed by mestizo residents of Nicaraguan cities such as Masaya. In these celebrations, the marimba de arco is performed (along with two guitars) to support dancers (performing dances generically known as baile de marimba, or “dance of the marimba”) as they collectively accompany the carrying of an image of a town’s patron saint through the streets of the city. Folkloric versions of these dances have become icons of Nicaraguan national identity. Although larger and chromatic forms of xylophone were introduced and popularized in Nicaragua in the course of the 20th century, the marimba de arco tradition has not only survived but is considered, by many, to be the “Nicaraguan” marimba (Scruggs 1999, p. 94).


[This description is drawn largely from Scruggs 1999 (pp. 94-99), which includes a well-illustrated section on the manufacture of the marimba de arco.] The twenty-two sonorous keys (gallery #1) are made from a dense hardwood that has been cured with heat to extract its natural oils. The keys are cut to roughly their final dimensions at the lumberyard and then further refined and tuned by the instrument maker with hand tools. They are then arranged in a single row (from the longest at one end to the shortest at the other) on and attached to an oblong frame constructed from four slats of wood (detail #1). The top edges of the frame’s long sides are covered with a thin strip of rubber and then with an elastic cord to pad them from direct contact with the keys. At the acoustically dead nodal points of each key, about a quarter of the key’s total length in from its ends, are drilled two holes, and through these are threaded a single length of elastic banding that connects all the keys to one another by running beneath consecutive keys and above each key between its drilled holes. Finally, the elastic cord and band are secured to the frame with cotton cord that is threaded through holes drilled in the sides of the frame (detail #2). The result of this system of attachment with various kinds of rope is that the wooden keys are secured to the top of a wooden frame but not in direct contact with it, leaving them to vibrate freely when struck with beaters. Beneath each key is positioned a cylindrical tube (called a tubo), open at its top and closed at its bottom, which provides the key with a resonating space that compliments its frequency of vibration. Like the keys, these tubes are arranged in a row from the longest at one end of the instrument to the shortest at the other (detail #2). They are held loosely in line by two thin slats of wood, and cotton cord is used to attach the resonators to these slats (detail #1). These slats are in turn attached to the main frame of the instrument with metal rods. The tubos are today made from cedar wood (in the past, from gourds or bamboo) that is shaped into a cylinder of the desired length, split in half, the two halves hollowed out and then glued back together. On the side of each tubo near its closed end is drilled a hole around which is built a mound, open at its center, of beeswax. A very thin membrane called telilla, now made from pig intestine, is glued over the hole, adding a distinctive buzz (called charleo) to the sound of the resonator’s key when it is struck (in detail #3 three buzzers in various states of disrepair are shown: the left one is complete except the telilla is torn; the center is missing both its beeswax and membrane; and the right one has its beeswax mound but is missing its membrane). A semi-hoop is added to the frame that is made from a segment of bejuco vine shaped and cured into an arco (arc, see gallery #1) the ends of which pass through holes drilled into the instrument’s main frame (detail #4).  Three beaters, made from stems of the papamiel plant, have hard ball-shaped heads made of tightly-wound strips of bark (detail #5).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The marimba de arco is played both in procession (with a standing and mobile performer) and by a seated marimbero (marimba de arco player). If played while standing/walking, the ends of the instrument’s frame are held by two non-performers and the marimbero stands inside the hoop facing the horizontal keyboard in front of him. If seated, the ends of the instrument must be supported by boxes or purpose-built stands, the instrument’s hoop resting on the seat of a chair on which the marimbero is seated facing the keyboard. The heptatonic (seven-tone) scale to which the keys on the marimba de arco pictured here is tuned runs from B-flat3 at its bass end to B-flat6 at its treble end, roughly B-flat mixolydian (B-flat - C - D - E-flat - F - G - A-flat - B-flat) over a three-octave range. The marimbero holds a pair of mallets with a forked grip in his right hand to play melody and harmony in the instrument’s treble register, and a single mallet in the left hand to produce a bass line. There are four different righthand positions, one that utilizes only one of the two mallets to play a melodic line, the other three to strike two keys simultaneously at the interval of an octave, a sixth, or a third (Scruggs 1999, p. 102). Marimbero strike the keys with great force to produce a loud (recio) sound that maximizes the buzz (charleo) added by the membranes (telilla) mounted on the resonators (tubos). The instrument is typically played in an instrumental trio consisting of a marimba de arco, a Spanish guitar with metal strings, and a small four-string guitar called guitarilla. The standard arrangement of these instruments is to have the guitar player stand or sit near the bass-end of the marimba (to the marimbero’s left) and the guitarilla player near the treble-end of the xylophone (to the marimbero’s right). Audio #1 presents a marimba de arco trio performing one of the approximately three dozen pieces from the repertoire of this tradition.


Although the precise details of the introduction of gourd-resonated xylophones to the Americas are lost, there is no question that such instruments are of African origin and that their design and the technological knowledge necessary to produce them were carried to the New World in the minds of slaves taken from southeast and central Africa perhaps as early as the 16th or 17th centuries. “Marimba” is a Bantu word for such xylophones and variants of this word are used throughout central and southern Africa to name these and related instruments. While descendants of African slaves still perform on marimbas in the Pacific coast regions of Colombia and Ecuador, in other areas of Latin America, and especially in southern Mexico and throughout Central America, indigenous peoples and mestizos have adopted the instrument (Kubik and Solis, p. 398). Over time the diatonic scale came to replace African scales, and, by the end of the 19th century, the range of the instrument, in some regions, was increased to as many as six octaves and included a second row of keys (equivalent to the black notes on the piano keyboard) and resonators to produce fully chromatic marimbas performed on by as many as four marimbistas. It is such instruments that served as the inspiration for the first modern orchestral marimbas produced in the U.S.A. in the early 20th century. However, in a few areas of Latin America such as Nicaragua and Guatemala, single-row diatonic xylophones, such as the marimba de arco, have survived in a form that is strikingly similar to their African predecessors.

Bibliographic Citations

Kubik, Gerhard, and Ted Solis. 2014. “Marimba, §2: America.” GDMI v.3: 398-399.

O’Brien-Rothe, Linda. 1998. "Guatemala." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.2. ed. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 721-737.

Scruggs, T. M. 1998a. "Cultural Capital, Appropriative Transformations, and Transfer by Appropriation in Western Nicaragua: El baile de la marimba," Latin American Music Review19/1: 1-30.

________. 1998b. "Nicaragua." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.2. ed. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 747-769.

________. 1999. “Central America: Marimba and Other Musics of Guatemala and Nicaragua.” In Music in Latin American Culture: Regional Traditions, John M. Schechter, ed. Accompanying CD. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 80-125.



Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: Central America

Nation: Nicaragua

Formation: Mestizo

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.212 idiophone--set of percussion sticks: several percussion sticks of different pitch are combined to form a single instrument, struck with a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker)

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: block - oblong bar

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: separate resonating space/s attuned to pitch/es of sonorous object/s - built into instrument

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - stick with hard ball end

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: tensioned membrane over hole in resonator


42 in. length of keyboard 9 – 19.3 in. length of keys (from shortest to longest) 1.4 – 1.9 in. width of keys (from narrowest to widest) 1.9 – 13.7 in. length of resonator tubes (from shortest to longest) 16 in. length of beaters

Primary Materials

string - cotton
membrane - mammal intestine lining

Entry Author

Roger Vetter