Hey, who are all those dudes playing marimbas?
It had been a rough day. At work, in general. Word back from an interview was past due, close friends were in the throes of relationship turmoil, one of my favorite temps at work relapsed and was fired from his job. I walked out of my building into the nearly-raining night feeling tired and a little bummed out.
I made the two-block walk to my train stop in a bit of a daze, and was met with a wave of music. It’s not unusual for there to be buskers on the corner outside of Pioneer Place, but this music was different: this music was much louder. As I made my way toward it, my train’s lights came into view a few blocks away. But the music made me waffle. It had become obvious that it was a marimba band, but they definitely weren’t your average buskers. Do I go check them out? Do I slump into a train seat and go home ASAP? They launched into a rendition of “Ob La Di, Ob La Da” by the Beatles, and that settled it. I took the crosswalk and found a place in the small crowd and listened.
And I was so glad I did. By the time I reached the crowd, the band had started another song. Not recognizable this time, and I was relieved it wasn’t a kitschy marimba cover band. The music was repetitive but lively – with the layers of five different types of the instrument. The base model required a foot-high step stool to play. The five players themselves, I was somewhat surprised to find, were just average looking dudes. All flannel and baseball hats and sneakers. One was about as Portland as you can get – red flannel, beard, beanie, black-rimmed glasses. But they were jamming – arms flailing in time and their bodies flowing in rhythm – they were enjoying themselves.
They took a pause just as a different train pulled into the stop behind the crowd and drowned out the leader of the group as he tried to tell us who they were and what was going on. I caught that they were called the Supadupa Marimba Bros, they were there playing on behalf of a non-profit whose name was lost to the noise. They weren’t buskers: they were playing for free – no hat passed for donations.
It turns out the Supadupa Marimba Bros are everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere in Portland, nowhere on the Internet. A Google search pulls long lists of event postings – farmers markets, benefits, weddings, concerts, a repeat gig at the Portland Saturday Market – and only a simple webpage and residual MySpace page (yes, it still exists) gives any insight into the group. It’s not much. The bio page reads, simply:
Supadupa Marimba Bros started as a youth band at MLC (Metropolitan Learning Center), a Portland Public School where Eric Miller teaches marimba. Many years later, they’ve stayed together as a band and perform their exciting style of marimba around the Pacific Northwest.
The home page lists two upcoming events. After that, apparently, the band will be hibernating to work on new material. The MySpace page has a few songs and handful of outdated photos. I feel pretty lucky to have stumbled upon them.
Eric Miller is a music teacher at Lewis & Clark College, and part of Boka Marimba, another Portland-based Marimba band. The other members were hard to find. Three were listed in a 2014 article for the Saturday Market: Cory Fratto, Gem Hobbs, and Bert Sanchez, but that’s possibly no longer accurate. Another, Cole Perkinson, made the Oregonian in 2013 when he won a $25,000 Watson Fellowship to study music in Africa.
Because the marimba, after all, is an African instrument. Originally from Zimbabwe, the first marimbas were made of dried wood planks and hollowed out gourds. They made their way to Central and South America in the 1600s, eventually becoming so popular in Guatemala that it was named the national instrument. It’s really only in the last few decades that marimbas have hit the mainstream in North America and Europe. Modern Marimbas are generally made with aluminum or wood tubes, or, like the base for the Bros, PVC pipe. The tuning and rhythm have a shocking knack of blending together and forming a seamless, round, and billowing sound.
More trains passed but I stayed and watched as the Bros carried on. After each song they rotated. It appeared as if each member could play all of the different instruments. Occasionally Miller would sing out (in English? Not in English), barely heard above the traffic, trains, and general hubbub of the city. They all joined in for a round of “The Saints Go Marching In,” the crowd clapping along. I kept wondering how their arms didn’t tire. Song after song they beat their mallets into rhythm and made a joyful raucous noise. People passed, but many stayed like me while the J. Crew mannequins stood fashionably still in the background.
It was an instantly cheering, serendipitous moment. I was pleased that I’d allowed myself to step away from my routine to take in that beautiful music. I even took a quick video to share with others, definitely not my norm. But I was also getting hungry, so I ducked away during the next break. By the time I was stepping onto my train, they had started up again. The Supadupa Marimba Bros spreading a little joy out into the city night.