I got an email the other day from Steve, an old collecting buddy from a million years ago. I’ve known Steve since I was in grade school and over the last decade or so have probably run into him every year or two and it’s always fun to catch up. He’s super knowledgeable about anything Seattle – sports, music, history, you name it. And he was a “digger” before the TV show American Pickers brought the term into the common lexicon.
Turns out Steve is moving and is looking to sell off items from his many collections, so I stopped by to peruse his records. A number of others beat me there, so a ton of the “good” stuff had already been sold. But that wasn’t going to deter me, so Steve and I caught up while I flipped through his vinyl. I found a few really nice Blondie albums and some other odds and ends, but what intrigued me the most was a record with a partially hand drawn cover that was subtitled Music of Zimbabwe and, improbably, recorded in Seattle. There weren’t any dates, but by the looks of it it had to be 1970s/80s, so why not take a chance for a couple of bucks?
It turns out Dumi was Abraham Dumisani “Dumi” Maraire who was born in Zimbabwe and came to Seattle in 1968 as a visiting music professor at the University of Washington and later Evergreen State College. He headed back to Africa in 1982, but then returned to the UW in 1986 to earn his PhD in ethnomusicology. Maraire was one of the driving influences in bringing marimba music to the American consciousness as a teacher and, probably more importantly, as a musician himself. In 1979 while in Seattle he and his ensemble recorded Chiwoniso, a seven song collection of traditional and contemporary songs from Zimbabwe and one hell of a fun album to listen to.
The heart and soul of The Maraire Marimba Ensemble is the marimba, an instrument reminiscent of the xylophone. Nine of the ten credited musicians played the marimba, and it’s hard to believe that basically all of the music on this album comes from percussion. I can’t do any justice with a song-by-song review, so let’s simply say that these songs have a feel to them… a feel of connection and an upbeat outlook on life. The interaction of so many musicians playing the same instrument makes everything interconnected, more like a village or a family unit than a band sharing a stage or a recording space. To my ears, woefully unfamiliar with world music per se, Chiwoniso conveys a sense of warmth and the percussion-driven sound makes movement of some kind a biological imperative. If I were to use one word to describe the music it would be “uplifting”.
Dr. Maraire passed away in 1999, at home in Zimbabwe. He and the ensemble that bore his name are still remembered by many in Seattle for their passionate live performances, and while I never got to see them live I’m grateful that this record crossed my path. It will definitely be getting some play this summer.