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A minor-key miracle

Finding rare Zimbabwean marimbas for Botswana ensemble was...

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bella English
Globe Staff / April 24, 2008

WILLIAMSTOWN - The teenage musicians had come all the way from Botswana and were poised at their instruments, ready to launch into a jazzy song called "Tears of Joy."

But before starting in on the tune, band director and marimba master Alport Mhlanga nodded toward a group of women who had driven four hours to see their instruments being played by the young Africans. "We are forever grateful to you ladies," he said. "We won't forget you. This has been an experience."

The women - teachers, a nurse, a scientist - beamed from their seats and leaned forward expectantly. As mallets flew over marimbas, the women nodded to the music, tapped their feet, and took photos. One even played "air marimba," closing her eyes and pretending to wield her own mallet to a song written by Mhlanga.

It was a happy ending to a shaky beginning 10 days ago, when the students boarded a plane from Africa without their marimbas, sparking a frantic trans-Atlantic search to find replacements for the rare Zimbabwean instruments. Help came from unlikely sources: a group of women from Syracuse and a couple from Queens.

The teenagers, whose band has won numerous awards, are on a Northeast tour to raise money for their school's AIDS orphans scholarships. The Maru-a-Pula School has close ties with American supporters such as Williams College, which has offered scholarships to some of its graduates.

In addition, some Maru-a-Pula students have participated in exchange programs at private schools in the Northeast, including Deerfield Academy in Western Massachusetts and Roxbury Latin School. Tonight they play at Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge, with two jazz ensembles from Milton Academy opening for them. The two schools' bands have hosted each other in the past.

The saga began April 12, as the students arrived at Johannesburg International Airport and were told that South African Airways' baggage restrictions had changed since the band's last trip to the United States in 2002. The airline was sorry, but the 10 marimbas could not be loaded onto the plane.

Frantic, the students and their principal, Andy Taylor, along with Mhlanga, who had built the marimbas himself, boarded the plane without the instruments. Then they e-mailed an SOS to their American supporters 8,000 miles away.

In New York, an equally frantic Reif Larsen, who organized the tour, swung into action. His mission: to find 10 marimbas by the next day. Zimbabwean marimbas. Zimbabwean marimbas that have just the C-major scale. With an added F-sharp. Four soprano, four tenor, one baritone, and one bass. Plus tuning tools.

Finding Zimbabwean marimbas in Manhattan is harder than finding a parking space. The instruments, a sort of wooden xylophone, are rare in the United States, though there are pockets of players in the Pacific Northwest and in Sante Fe. Western-style marimbas, much more common here, are completely different instruments that cover several octaves.

Larsen, a former teacher at the secondary school in Botswana's capital, Gaborone, began making calls.

"I was on the phone for six hours," Larsen said. "I talked with every member of the marimba community in the US, including the lead marimbaist from 'The Lion King.' I only discovered this: Finding the particular Zimbabwean C-major, with an added F-sharp, marimba in this country, let alone 10, is nearly impossible."

Meanwhile, calls were placed to the American embassy in Botswana, to the ambassador, to the chief executive of South African Airlines. No luck. "It was a nightmare," said Larsen, who teaches writing at Columbia University.

Larsen and Beth Nissen, who is also on the board of the American Friends of the Maru-a-Pula School, called percussionists at the New York Philharmonic. They searched eBay. They called music stores and visited online sites. Nothing. Marimbas are elaborate instruments, custom-made from exotic wood and custom-ordered.

Nissen, a senior producer at NBC News, fired off a pitch to NY1, the local cable station, which played a clip of the students' music and put out the plea for help.

On a website, Larsen found Ernest Brown, a marimba teacher at Williams College. He could not loan his instruments because his students had their own concerts scheduled.

But he checked Zimbabwean music websites and found a list of about 30 US marimba bands, all out west, except one.

"I finally found Syracuse, New York," Brown says. "I said, 'What?!' I really didn't think there was another marimba band on this side of the Mississippi."

Brown alerted Larsen, and in Syracuse, a schoolteacher named Martha Jenks answered Larsen's phone call.

"He sounded desperate," she says. Some years ago, Jenks, 57, had been to a Zimbabwean marimba demonstration. So smitten was she that she talked the musician, who was from Seattle, into starting classes in Syracuse.

Three years ago Jenks and seven of her friends started their own group, Kambuyu Marimba, playing on instruments they built themselves. They painstakingly found the various African and Honduran woods they needed and sanded, sawed, carved, and drilled marimbas into shape. Instead of using African gourds under the keyboard for resonance, they improvised with PVC pipe. The eight women, plus Jenks's grown son, practice twice a week and perform locally.

It just so happened that, when Larsen made his call, the marimba group was practicing at Jenks's house. The vote was unanimous: They would lend their instruments to the students.

They packed up Jenks's minivan, and the next morning she and another member made the five-hour drive to New York.

One problem remained: Jenks's group had nine instruments, and the students needed a tenth. A soprano marimba.

It was about 10:30 that Sunday night when a couple in Queens heard the NY1 story. They had a Zimbabwean marimba in their garage. And it was a soprano.

"When we moved here from Santa Fe, my son had been part of a marimba troupe there," said Nina Long of Forest Hills. "We had a marimba made for him for his birthday, but when we moved here he stopped playing."

The next day, Long drove the marimba to the Riverdale Country Day School in the Bronx, the students' home base. With the 10 marimbas in place, the students - eight of them girls - practiced quickly, and then played a concert at the Forum, a Manhattan club. After several New York gigs, they headed to New England, where they are touring this week.

Following the Williams College concert, the Maru-a-Pula band posed behind the marimbas with their new Syracuse fan club.

"We were terrified at the airport," said Mmaserame Gaefele, 15. "We thought we'd have to go back home. But we were lucky. These instruments are exactly the same, except the resonators are made out of pipes."

As for the Syracuse women, they agreed that their instruments had never sounded so sweet.

For information on the Maru-a-Pula School and to buy the band's CD, go to www.afmap.org. For information about the Ryles concert, go to www.rylesjazz.com or call 617-876-9330.

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