Jamba creates bonds through marimba

By Drew Myron

Irene Kurzweil playing instrument
Irene Kurzweil is one of the founding members of Jamba, an all-female marimba band sharing joyful sounds throughout the Columbia Gorge.

A summer breeze carries a deep sound—mellow, gentle and earthy—and Irene Kurzweil can’t stop smiling. At 92, she’s a slight figure against a massive wooden instrument. Her body bends into every note.

A classical pianist and violinist since childhood, Irene took up marimba 23 years ago. She says the ancient form changed the way she experienced music.

“My first instructor gave me the best advice,” Irene explains. “She said, ‘This is not intellectual music. You have to feel it in your bones.’ It was such a different approach and such a shift in my brain. I felt like a part of me that had been dormant was set free.”

Irene is a founding member of Jamba, an all-female marimba band that shares joyful sounds throughout the Columbia Gorge. Jamba plays music from Zimbabwe, Africa, as well as from the Caribbean and other parts of the world. Performing at local festivals, farmers markets, wineries and special events, the band has been praised for its “infectiously happy” energy and sound.

Nine women, hailing from both sides of the Columbia River, make up the band and bring together a variety of geographical and musical backgrounds. Members are Avalon Totten-Denton and Keri Bradberry of Odell; Dotty Nelson of Parkdale; Irene Kurzweil, Abigail Merickel and Marilyn Smith of Hood River; and Lorrie DeKay, Gretchen Moisen and Anita Johnson of White Salmon.

Marimba belongs to the xylophone family. It has two or three octaves of wood keys, often arranged in simple scales. Soprano and tenor marimbas have two complete octaves—15 keys. The tenor, baritone and bass have one to two octaves, with the tenor having a higher pitch. The keys are made from padauk, wenge, mahogany or rosewood. Each key is cut and tuned by grinding a groove in the underside.

Part of the key to the marimba’s rich sound are its resonators—tubes that hang below each bar.

Like a xylophone, bars are struck with mallets to produce tones. While the xylophone gives a harsh sound thanks to metal bars, a marimba produces a deep, rich tone. Characterized by its relaxed rhythmic structure and syncopated melodies, marimba resonates with warm notes and a relaxed sound.

The origins of the marimba are not clear, though most believe the instrument began in Africa. Holes were dug in the ground, wooden bars were made to cross over the hole and bars were struck to produce sound.

Jamba plays with seven marimbas: three sopranos, two tenors, one baritone and one bass. The group performs at fairs, festivals and private parties throughout the region, including Hood River, Parkdale, White Salmon, Bingen, Stevenson, Trout Lake and Maryhill.

Jamba wasn’t always a band of women. In 1996, Will Griffith formed the group, then named Mutamba. The group included three married couples, including Irene and her late husband, Bob Aikin.

“We joked that the couple that plays together stays together,” Irene says.

In 2002, the group reorganized as Jamba, and has evolved into a robust band of female musicians ranging in age from mid 50s to early 90s. They rehearse every Wednesday night in Irene’s large garage and perform throughout the summer. Each member plays every instrument, and during a performance will rotate through each piece. Some are accomplished musicians; others came to the group with limited experience.

Before she joined Jamba five years ago, Abigail—a visual artist—took marimba lessons as a creative challenge.

“I was so impressed with the spunk and pizzazz of these older women that I thought this is a great way to age gracefully, staying fully engaged, learning new music, and being a part of a positive and supportive community,” she says.

Dotty, who joined the group in 2002, is one of the longestrunning members. Jamba fulfills a childhood wish.

“I have always been a wannabe drummer,” she jokes, “but my mother said it was not ladylike.”

Keri is one of the newer members, having joined in 2014.

“I so enjoy the camaraderie of these amazing, inspiring, encouraging, vibrant women who have smashed all the stereotypes I once had of growing older,” she says.

For Lorrie, Jamba completes a circle that began years ago.

“In the 1990s, I lived in West Africa and became familiar with African music there and on trips to Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa,” she says. “I never thought I’d end up in a marimba band in Oregon playing music from Zimbabwe!”

For more information on Jamba Marimba, go to http://jambamarimba.com or www.facebook.com/Jamba-Marimba, contact Avalon Totten-Denton
at 541-490-8303 or avalontdenton@gmail.com, or contact Lorrie DeKay at 509-637-2737 or lorriedk@gmail.com.