It's National Marimba Day In Guatemala — And For Guatemalans In The U.S.

Feb 20, 2020
Originally published on February 20, 2020 7:05 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Happy marimba day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA PLAYING)

SHAPIRO: In Guatemala, today marks the official celebration of its national instrument. The marimba is a symbol of pride and resistance there. NPR's Neda Ulaby spoke with Guatemalans living in the United States about what the marimba means to them.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Back home in Quetzaltenango, Ubaldo Sanchez did not particularly care about National Marimba Day.

UBALDO SANCHEZ: When I was in Guatemala, I didn't pay much attention to it. I hear it everywhere, but when you come here, it's another story.

ULABY: When Sanchez first got to the United States 16 years ago, he never heard the marimba on the radio or while moving through his day. And he missed the sound of it terribly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA PLAYING)

ROBERT GIRON: Over there, you know, they have marimbas on the street, you know, playing music on the street.

ULABY: That's Robert Giron and his sisters. They play in a marimba family band based in suburban Maryland. Their parents immigrated from Guatemala in the 1980s and taught their children how to play just as soon as they could hold the mallets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA PLAYING)

ULABY: The xylophone-like instrument arrived in Central America from Africa through the slave trade. It became an integral part of indigenous cultures. But for hundreds of years, colonizers tried to keep people from playing it. Then came the 20th century genocide of the Maya people during which marimba players were sometimes targeted and disappeared.

HAYES LAVIS: The Guatemalan government was trying to suppress a lot of the traditional native art forms, and the marimba is one of them.

ULABY: Hayes Lavis programs cultural affairs for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

LAVIS: But it was one that was so ingrained with the people of Guatemala that they would not give it up.

ULABY: The government eventually relented and named the marimba Guatemala's national instrument in 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA PLAYING)

ULABY: Here in Washington, D.C., the Museum of the American Indian is celebrating Guatemala's National Marimba Day with the band Marimba Linda Xelaju, the family band from the Maryland suburbs. Its founder, Robert Giron Sr., did not start playing the marimba until he arrived in the United States because he missed it so much. That's something he says he has in common with so many members of his audience.

ROBERT GIRON SR: The people listen, and they cry. They cry because they feel the music from their country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA PLAYING)

ULABY: February 20 was declared the national day of the marimba by the Guatemalan Congress in 1999. The holiday is not exactly widely celebrated by young Guatemalan Americans. But Jennifer Flores, Robert Giron's daughter, looks forward to it every year.

JENNIFER FLORES: For us, it means a lot because we personally play the marimbas, so it's going to be a great day just because it's music (laughter). It's good for the soul.

ULABY: A balm when so much news about Guatemalans trying to come to this country now is so sad.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.