Marimba is fairly new to Fairbanks, but you wouldn’t know it by watching local marimba players perform right alongside other experienced marimba groups at the first-ever Marimba Madness North gathering last weekend.
The musical groups came together at Tonglen Lake Lodge on Saturday as part of Denali Outreach for Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. It was a joyful and colorful afternoon as they played on the outside stage.
African marimbas were first introduced to Fairbanks in 2017. Fairbanksan Peggy Carlson often visited her sister in Anchorage who performed with the Knock on Wood marimba troupe. Carlson learned a few tunes and even joined Knock on Wood in a few performances. As a retirement gift, Peggy’s sister gave her a soprano marimba.
Peggy Carlson soon discovered it was not much fun playing alone. When she saw the Shamwari Marimba Ensemble of Homer perform outside the Homer Bookstore, she asked if they would be willing to come to Fairbanks to teach a marimba class.
“And, by the way, would they bring their instruments since there are none in Fairbanks,” pointed out Cindy Wentworth, one of the current Fairbanks marimba players.
Two of Shamwari Marimba Ensemble members — Jim Levine and Jenny Stroyeck — ended up teaching a two-week class at last year’s Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. The weekend before the festival, members of Shamwari Marimba Ensemble packed their instruments, drove to Fairbanks and played at the Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market and at Pioneer Park. Thirty students signed up for the marimba class. Seven of those students were hooked.
With the expert guidance of Jim Levine, the new players soon purchased four soprano marimbas, two tenors and a baritone marimba. Music Room owners Chris Miller and Angie Schmidt purchased a bass that the ensemble now rents as part of its Music Room rental for practice sessions.
Thanks to a Good Cents grant from Golden Valley Electric Association, the festival purchased three soprano marimbas in 2018, which are used for practice sessions at the Music Room.
There are now currently 15 African marimbas in Fairbanks.
The Serevende Marimba Ensemble of Fairbanks was formed by Sharon Baring, Peggy Carlson, Philip Martin, Marlene McCermott, Mary McMorrow, Evelyn Sfraga and Cindy Wentworth. Their first public performance was at International Friendship Day in fall 2018. They went on to perform at Music in the Woods, Dark Winter Nights, the UAF Pub, the Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market and the Midnight Sun Festival.
Michael Breez returned in 2019 as the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival guest artist, and Jim Levine and Jenny Stroyeck returned for a festival marimba class in February.
“Zimbabwean-style marimba music is primarily taught by rote, but one of our members, Philip Martin, sought out music for ‘Skokiana’ online by listening to YouTube,” Wentworth said. “He found a particularly fun rendition played by a young girl who was accompanied by an even younger boy. We adopted that version of the song. “
Last fall, Philip wondered if that young girl was still playing the marimba. He googled her and discovered she was a wildlife biology and conservation major at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And she had her marimba with her.
“She had no idea there was a marimba ensemble in Fairbanks and has been our mentor and ensemble member ever since,” Wentworth said. Her name is B’Elanna Rhodehamel and she was one of the talented musicians at Marimba Madness North.
Perhaps the most stunning moment at Marimba Madness North came when all three groups played together for the finale. Marimbas stretched out on the outdoor stage and the lawn.
In the interest of full disclosure, readers should know that Kris Capps is the outreach coordinator for Denali Outreach/Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.