Series Cultural Heritage


The XXII Festival del Caribe, which will take place at Santiago de Cuba from July 3 until July 9, will be dedicated to the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba and Suriname this year. A good opportunity to dwell on the cultural heritage that came to the Antilles via Cuba. There are three musical instruments that come under this heritage: the tres, the bongo and the marimbula. Antillean migrants who had worked on the Cuban sugar plantations at the beginning of the 20th century brought them back home with them.
If you did not know any better, you would think that it was a little suitcase: a little wooden box with a handle on top. But if you take a closer look, you will see that a hole has been carefully cut out in the flat front side of the box. Just under it, a keyboard of iron plates has been attached. This is not a little suitcase; this is a marímbula, the poor man’s contrabass.
The marímbula is found in numerous versions: with or without a handle, with decorations and clever wood carvings or roughly with only a layer of varnish. Normally, the musician sits on the sound box, but there are also versions that are laid on the musician’s lap or, for example during the carnival celebration, are hung with a cord around the neck. Usually, the marímbula stands as hand baggage with the bottom on the ground, sometimes on legs of a few centimeters in height.
“A representative of the blending of European and African elements, characteristic of a great part Caribbean music”, is the description given of the marímbula by Donald Thompson. The instrument has many features of its African predecessor, the sanza. But this predecessor, also known as likembe or mbira, is much smaller. Small enough to be held in both hands and to be played by the thumbs or thumbs and forefingers. Sometimes the traditional plucked instrument is nothing more than a row of little iron bars on a board, then again calabashes and even human skulls are used as sound boxes. And then the colonial era dawns. “The African slaves did not bring along their instruments to the Caribbean”, writes Michael Sisson. “But they did bring along their traditions. They made their instruments from the materials that were available locally.” As an example, Sisson mentions the cajon, the “niece” of the marímbula and ‘not much more than an old wooden box.” The first descriptions of the Caribbean version of the African sanza emerge halfway the nineteenth century in travel accounts, dictionaries and literary works. Not much later, Walter Goodman (1870) describes how black people in Cuba make music on “a primitive instrument made from a square box on which strips of flexible iron of varying lengths and tones are arranged.” The Cuban sanza has emerged. Not for nothing. In eastern Cuba the son originates. Poor, Creole folk musicians interpret the texts, taken from real life, accompanied by the bongo, the tres and the marímbula. A new era has dawned. The sanza also played a part in the religious and mystic celebrations. The marímbula loses that traditional function and goes “down to earth” as the harmonic bass in the son music, with a larger sound box and heavy, low tones.
The sound box is preferably made of hard pine wood or cedar wood, which resists moisture and insects well. But often triplex is used, which produces acoustics of a lesser quality. How decorative the instrument eventually is, depends especially on the traditional skills of its maker. There are specimens with complete paintings of landscapes, but also with only a layer of varnish. The resonance hole is usually round, half-round, triangular or heart-shaped. For the keys, the iron blades, the springs of a phonograph were preferably used. The steel was stiff, rigid and still flexible. Later, when the phonograph has become a scarce item, the springs of clocks and the blades of knives and saws are used out of sheer necessity. In Jamaica even the hoops of rum casks are used.
It is a peculiar sight, seeing a musician sitting on his own instrument, bent forward slightly, plucking with the fingertips of one hand and drumming with the other hand on the side of the marímbula. The more keys of different lengths -varying from three, four, but also more than ten occur- the more tones. There are no half tones, on account of which the bass tone of the marímbula is perhaps not always finely tuned to the other instruments. “But there is always a note to be found that is close enough in the vicinity”, says Thompson, who quotes an instrument maker from Puerto Rico: “What you need is a low note, a high note and one that is not so high. The rest is rhythm.”
The rhythm of the ‘son’ conquers Cuba in the twenties of the previous century. To the great annoyance of the establishment and the Government, who think the music “pernicious. “What the blues is for North America, the son is for Latin America”, Sisson states, explaining its success. Once it had advanced from the countryside to the city, the tercetos with bongo, tres and marímbula develop into sextets and later septets complemented with maracas, guitar and clave.
At the beginning of the thirties the son fever is blown over to Curaçao. Here too, against the will of the elite. Septeto Kòrsou, later Conjunto La Fama, introduces the marímbula on the island in 1933. The marímbulas were produced locally. When the purchasing power increased in the forties, the marímbula had to give way to the contrabass. Except for groups as ‘Estrellas di Merengue’.

Picture caption:
Marímbula, ‘the poor man’s contrabass’.
(collection Brenneker/Juliana, NAAM)


Jos Gansemans, Volksinstrumenten, Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika, België, Terneuzen, 1989.
S. ‘Yapi’ Martijn, Kòrsou Musikal, Un dokumentashon di nos historia musikal popular entre 1930 i 1989, 1e Tomo (dekada 30, 40 i 50
Helio Orovio, Diccionario de la Música Cubana, Cuba, Havana, 2e editie,1992.
Huib Billiet, De klank van de houten druppel, BRT-uitgave, België, 1988
María Elena Vinueza González, Marímbula, in: Instrumento de la música folclórico-popular de Cuba, Centro de Investigation y desarollo de la musica Cubana.
Donald Thompson, The Marimbula, an afro-caribbean Sanza, University of Puerto Rico
Michael Sisson, The story of the Marímbula,

Text Eva Breukink