Sounds of the South African Collection: a closer look at the marimba

Sounds of the South African Collection: a closer look at the marimba

In the first blog looking at objects from South Africa, Summer Scholar Courtney Powell highlights key musical instruments in the collection and discusses the ongoing importance of building collection knowledge.

The South African collection contains a large number of what is classified as ‘ethnographic material’, such as fighting axes, spears, shields, arrows, and daggers. However, other material of cultural importance reside in our storage. This collection includes several musical instruments from South Africa, including rattles, mbira (finger piano), and two marimba.

These instruments are valuable and important parts of the International History Collection as they are able to communicate the history of the museum and exemplify the changing interests of Te Papa over time.

Percussion instruments in the collection

The first marimba is a 10-note keyboard made from wood with 10 resonators attached to the bottom of the keys made from gourd. The gourds beneath the keys are tuned to each specific one. It is completely intact, with a set of two small, wooden mallets.

An African marimba
Marimba, maker and date unknown, South Africa. Te Papa (FE004928)

The second marimba in the collection is unfortunately in a more fragile condition. It is a similar 10-note marimba, with gourd resonators on the bottom. However, only six of them remain attached. Made from wood and leather, the mallets used to play the marimba is missing.

With very little documentation, it is unclear when these marimba were constructed, or by whom. They are simply labelled of “South African origin.”

A South African marimba
Marimba, maker and date unknown, South Africa. Te Papa (FE002215)

South African music

Historically, marimba was a common instrument played in South Africa and it has maintained its popularity today. Often played by street performers, they continue to be used in choirs for indigenous music and by community outreach programmes to provide musical education to children.

Even now, marimba continue to be made from wood, as well as synthetic materials. Quite different from a xylophone, marimba have a range of 4-5 octaves and a unique tuning method.

The marimba held by Te Papa appear large in person, but in comparison to other types of standing marimba, they are quite small. The intact marimba is only 74.5cm long and 48.5cm wide (about the size of your bath mat), whereas the fragile marimba is slightly shorter at 72cm long, but wider at 54cm. It is likely these instruments would have sat on top of the player’s lap or on the ground.

Purchasing objects for the museum

Not only does Te Papa obtain new objects through donations or gifting, but oftentimes takes a more active role in acquisitions through purchasing items from individuals and organisations. The collection of South African material was more popular during the period of the 1920s and 1930s.

The fragile marimba is an important example of this, purchased in a sale of McKenna’s Antique and Fine Art Gallery’s ethnographic objects. The auction was held on the 18th of December, 1929 and the Colonial Museum purchased the marimba along with many Pacific and Aboriginal cultural objects.

A page from the Evening Post
Evening Post, Volume CVIII, Issue 147, 18 December 1929, Page 24. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 NZ. Fairfax Media. National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa/Papers Past

Several objects in the collection have been acquired through antique auctions, including other Southern African instruments such as a sansa, a small, lightweight board played by plucking its metal prongs. But it means an object’s history in coming to Aotearoa New Zealand is often lost.

The intact marimba’s acquisition history continues to be a mystery. Catalogues show that the instrument was purchased as an individual piece by the museum, but there are no records to tell us from whom or when this transaction took place.

Beyond the unknown

As mentioned above, interest in collecting South African objects would wax and wane over time. This interest was impacted by staff and management changes as well as the evolving social climate within Aotearoa New Zealand.

Only a tenuous connection between Aotearoa and South Africa can be made in this case. The marimba would have been produced there, but their journey between peoples and countries remains unknown. Collecting ethnographical items was common practice and their place in the museum shows the interests of curators at that specific time.

As part of museum work, research to find information associated with objects is an ongoing process. While parts of these objects’ histories may still be obscured, it doesn’t mean it always will be. Continuing this process is particularly important to better understand cultural values placed on objects. Working with communities related to these objects is part of the role of the museum to ensure they are appropriately cared for and understood.

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