BIO: Masanga Marimba plays traditional and popular music from Africa and Latin America. The instruments used in this ensemble consist of 7 Zimbabwean marimbas of various sizes along with vocals, drums, percussion, saxophone and trumpet. The word “Masanga” comes from an African word that means the coming together of rivers or roads representing the meeting of African, Latin and American traditions in this group. Masanga Marimba formed in the year 2000 and has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, Grand Performances, Skirball Cultural Center, Madrid Theater, and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. The ensemble also played for the inauguration of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and was honored to be selected to perform for the World Festival of Sacred Music. The group is led by Dr. Ric Alviso, a Cal State Northridge ethnomusicologist, professor of World Music, and the director of the CSUN African Music Ensemble. Professor Alviso studied traditional African music in Senegal, Zimbabwe and Ghana. The members of Masanga have degrees in percussion performance, music composition, music education, jazz performance, art, and ethnomusicology. Masanga is the only marimba ensemble in Southern California that combines Latin and African traditions. Their music is upbeat, danceable, and family-oriented. The sight and sound of Masanga's giant marimbas is unlike anything you've ever seen or heard before.
THE MASANGA STORY (by Ric Alviso): In 1998, while I was in Zimbabwe studying the Shona mbira (thumb-piano) as part of my Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, I came in contact with marimba music as well. I knew that Zimbabwean marimba music had been brought to the Seattle area in 1968 by Dumisani “Dumi” Maraire when he came to study at the University of Washington. Even though Dumi had returned to Zimbabwe in 1982, by 1998 his American students had started their own groups, and a second generation of students had started their own groups, and so on. I was lucky to hear Anzanga Marimba when they came from Seattle to play at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica in 1995. I remember my mouth just hanging open when I accidentally came upon their group performing that evening. I had never heard anything like it! While I was in Zimbabwe, I was able to meet Dumi and thank him for the impact he had made in the U.S. I told him that he had dropped a stone in a still pond and the ripples he had created would live on for generations. A year after I left Zimbabwe Dumi died of a stroke.
In 2000 I was hired as Professor of World Music at California State University Northridge (CSUN). Upon my appointment the chair of the department informed me that I had approximately $7000 to do with as I pleased to develop and enrich the program. I knew immediately that I would use that sum to purchase a set of Zimbabwean marimbas. That first set was made by Carl Dean, a Portland-based furniture maker who had transitioned to making Shona-style marimbas due to the demand in the Pacific Northwest. That set arrived a mere week before classes began. At first, I was literally learning pieces just a few days before I was teaching them to my students. Looking back at the rudimentary pieces we were playing in the fall of 2000, I am surprised that two of my first students, Stefani Thomas and Scott Murphy, have stayed with me all these years!
Luckily over the following months and years I was fortunate to study with many of the best teachers and arrangers of Zimbabwean marimba in the U.S. I am especially indebted to the following people for sharing their arrangements with me: Alport Mhlanga, Paul Mataruse, Sheasby Matiure, MyLinda King, Larry Israel, and Laura Mallon.
Within months of our first school concert requests started coming in for us to perform marimba music in the community. If my memory serves me correctly, our first performance outside CSUN was for graduation at the Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena in June 2001. After that it became obvious that I would need to purchase a second set of instruments to perform in the community. That set arrived in 2002 and I began searching for a name for the group. After weeks of browsing through the hundreds of pages of Hannan’s Standard Shona Dictionary for ideas, I came upon the word “masanga” meaning “the coming together of two or more roads or rivers into one.” I still think that word is fitting for a musical group that combines the love of so many musical influences into a set of Zimbabwean-style marimbas.
Over the years I have been very fortunate to have introduced Zimbabwean marimba to hundreds and hundreds of amazing and talented music students at CSUN. Thus, it has been natural for us to recruit players into Masanga from the ranks of the best and most enthusiastic CSUN students. The current members of Masanga all began by taking my CSUN class: Scott Murphy and Stefani Thomas (2000), Joel Mankey (2001), Nick Schutz (2002), Alex Smith (2004), Monica Bowser (2005), Risa Isogawa (2011), and Bethany Spielman (2016). As we approach our 20th Anniversary, we feel fortunate to have shared the rich music and instruments of the Shona people of Zimbabwe with audiences in the U.S. We hope to continue to highlight the connections between African culture and the music of the Americas well into the next 20 years!