Sticking it to the (wo)man:the Blackroots Marimbas Ensemble

September 2016

I met the Blackroots Marimbas through one of my UCT friends, Sky. If you remember, I posted an amazing video of her playing mbira in one of my past blog posts. Sky’s love for African music started when she used to play marimba in church. She then started playing with one of Cape Town’s largest bands for a while, but she thought that there had to be more than just playing for someone else. She wanted to play for herself.Surrounded by marimba music at church, Sky noticed that they were always played by men. The women would either sing or dance. She then came up with the idea to start a marimba band from people of her township, Gugulethu. Sky then met Sharon and Ntombekhaya at church and told them about her idea. They then brought up the idea of starting a marimba band to their pastor hoping for recommendations on how to get funding for instruments. He then introduced the girls to an American organization called Amen Amen Africa, who eventually gave them a loan to purchase the marimbas to start their band.

They didn’t want to start a marimba band only for the love of marimba music, but also to make the youth in their township more interested in the music of their culture. The townships are not necessarily dangerous, but they aren’t exactly safe, either. It is because of the youth in Gugulethu that Sky wanted to bring the kids together and do something that doesn’t involve violence or drugs. Blackroots thought it would be a great idea to create an outreach program in Gugulethu where they can serve not only as music teachers, but as consistent role models. Unfortunately, the outreach program is currently on hold while all the Blackroots are in university or starting a new job. The point of teaching the youth is to give them consistency in their lives, and this can’t necessarily be kept when the ensemble is focusing on music juries and tests.

Because the ensemble is majority female, Eric and Rashid, the two males in the group actually have experienced discrimination for being seen in what people perceive as a “girl band”. Usually, marimba ensembles are all males or male dominated, but Blackroots are the complete opposite of that. Because of this, Eric and Rashid are some times negatively judged. Traditionalists question the ensemble and undermine their ability due to having a majority of women in the ensemble. Negative comments, predominantly from older black men, question not only the musical ability of the ensemble, but also the physical lifting. Remarks such as “how are you going to carry these marimbas, does someone do it for you?” are a regular occurrence at performances. When men offer to help with loading and unloading, its seen more as a challenge to the girls to carry the marimbas themselves.

Even their style of playing is questioned. Many ensembles tend to believe the “we play better than you because we play differently” mentality. Just like the difference in techniques from teacher to teacher in the United States, there are many different techniques and interpretations when it comes to playing South African marimba music. Because of this idea, the ensemble decided to play music for themselves. They dont want to sound like the marimba ensembles busking on the side of the boardwalk for loose change from tourists. They want to sound like the Blackroots Marimbas. There is no single way to play marimba and it can be played anyway as long as you are producing good music that you as a musician enjoy.

When there are only so many indigenous marimba songs, many ensembles sounds very similar. However, Blackroots have found a more creative approach by using marimbas to suit their own musical preferences. This makes the listeners more excited to hear a traditional song played with the original Blackroots flare. Not only do they give traditional music a modern twist, but the ensemble also collaborates together to compose new African-style music. Rehearsals are seen as a free space where they can bring their own creativity and create a new song organically. Each member brings inspiration from their background in music to the creative process to compose something completely innovative and approachable to the general public. From Eric’s passion for opera, to Sharon and Ntombekhaya’s love for soul, they pick and choose from every genre to make a completely new sound that is catching the attention of South Africans all over the country. Listen to some of their awesome songs on my youtube channel below!

Check out their website at http://blackrootsmarimbas.wixsite.com/blackroots or their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BlackrootsMarimbas/?ref=br_rs

Random facts about South Africa:
-It’s strongly advised to keep your car locked at all times or baboons will open the doors and raid your car (even if you are sitting in traffic)
-There are 5 different languages in the South African national anthem, even though there are 11 official languages of the country
-South Africans eat their national animal, the springbok (It’s actually quite tasty)
-Ostriches are terrifying prehistoric monsters and the male’s legs turn bright pink when they want to mate

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