Yale’s Marimband Moves On Its Own

Design by Sara Offer

Waulking Songs is a biweekly column written by Lucy Santiago. Waulking songs are traditional folk songs sung by women while weaving. The title of this column is a pun.

Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

The Pierson music room is a pleasant cacophony of warm wood, cheerful conversation, and, of course, marimba. It’s close quarters in here: marimbas of all sizes are arranged in a loose circle, with one or two players at each instrument. It could feel cramped, but instead, it’s more like a party. Maybe it’s the smiles and small talk people are exchanging as they play, or maybe it’s the people in the back, experimenting with silly ways to hold the mallets. Either way, Yale Marimba practice is a fun place to be.

In front of me, Eliza Lord walks Claire St. Peter through a new piece. Claire watches attentively as Eliza plays the piece twice, then takes up the mallet and tries for herself. It’s not what you’d expect from a Yale music group’s practice. There’s no sheet music, aside from notes on Eliza’s phone, and no conductor. This is traditional marimba, so pieces are taught by sight and ear. It’s all listening.

Eliza founded Yale Marimba, affectionately known as Marimband, last fall. For her, marimba was love at first sight when she started playing in fifth grade. Until high school, she played classical—that is, Westernized— marimba. But things changed when a Botswanan marimba band came to her high school in her junior year. “It was a completely different form,” she described. “There was dancing, there was singing.” She was hooked. With a grant from her school, Eliza traveled to Botswana that summer.

There, she learned about the traditional style as well as the history of the marimba. The instrument originated in Zimbabwe before spreading to other regions of Southern Africa. Eventually, enslaved Africans brought marimba to the United States. In a Western context, Eliza says, “It stopped being this communal singing, dancing instrument and became a very solo instrument.” Her experience in Botswana radically changed her relationship to the marimba, and while she continued her classical studies, she began to play more traditional marimba. She realized, “You can have fun, and it can be a full-body experience.”

When she came to Yale, Eliza knew she had to bring marimba with her. “I was unsure of how it was going to get picked up,” she said. Marimba is a relatively unconventional instrument in the United States, so Eliza didn’t even know if there would be interest. But almost immediately, the Yale Marimba band was a success.

Marimband members credit that to Eliza’s leadership. From the start, Eliza has prioritized inclusivity. She watched her friends express frustration about not getting into exclusive groups, and she didn’t want Yale Marimba to make people feel that way. “I want this to be open to everyone,” she said. “The soul of marimba music is community and joy and having fun playing together. And I didn’t want that to become something that was based on how much previous percussion experience you had.”

As a result, Yale Marimba has attracted an eclectic mix of members. Some people have years of marimba experience, while others are brand new. Enthusiasm, not skill level, is the key factor. “We’re all very different people,” said Kate Williams, a founding member, “but we have this one thing in common.” 

It’s that communal element that is crucial to the success of the group. Claire, who joined Marimband last spring, explained that it proves “anyone can make music in a space with other people.” It doesn’t take expertise; it’s a natural human instinct. “This isn’t so unique in other places in the world,” Claire noted, but it’s rare at Yale. Marimband is one of the few music-making spaces on campus that welcomes everyone. 

That openness is evident in the energy of the group. As rehearsal wraps for the week, the group plays the song they’ve spent the session learning. Everyone claps to keep the rhythm. They add parts one by one: bass, baritone, tenor, alto. It’s their first try, so it’s a hint off-beat, and once in a while someone hits the wrong key, but nobody can keep from smiling.

In the center of the group is Eliza. She is swaying with the music and smiling at the people around her. She emphasizes the non-hierarchical structure of Marimband, but it’s clear this is her passion project. Grinning, she directs the group to play quietly, then loudly, quietly, and loudly again. By the time a cymbal crashes on the last beat, Eliza is half-shouting, and everyone is laughing. 

It’s strange to think that this group didn’t exist a year ago. If not for one person’s passion for marimba, this music—this community—would never be here. Even though Eliza will graduate in May, she’s not worried about the future of Marimband. To Eliza, it’s clear that the community is now fueled by “the joy that people have brought who have joined the group, and also the joy of listeners. It feels like it’s moving on its own now.”

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