Soul Resonance: an amazing marimba tale

Former residents of Homer, Alaska, Laurel and Doug Epps, launched a documentary on the journey that Zimbabwean marimba music has been on in North America since the 1960’s.

Homer's all-women marimba group, practices at the Homer Council on the Arts in 2009 before heading to Colorado for the International Zimbabwean Music Festival.
Homer’s all-women marimba group, practices at the Homer Council on the Arts in 2009 before heading to Colorado for the International Zimbabwean Music Festival.

It took leaving Alaska for former Homer residents Laurel and Doug Epps to answer a question that perplexed them after they discovered Zimbabwean marimba music here. How did a musical tradition created in Africa in the 1960s come to North America and inspire people — including five marimba ensembles in Homer?

The result of that questioning was evidenced yesterday with the world premiere of "Soul Resonance" at the Eighth Annual Homer Documentary Film Festival, the film Laurel and Doug Epps made that explores the history of Zimbabwean music in Canada and the United States.

The couple, visiting Homer this summer, attend the showing with musical consultant Tendai Muparutsa, a Zimbabwean musician and teacher finishing his doctorate at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. A concert with Homer's current four marimba groups followed.

Searching for marimbas

When they left Homer, Doug and Laurel Epps had one criterion for their new home: wherever they lived had to have Zimbabwean marimba music.

Through, an international Zimbabwean music website, they found cities and towns with marimba and visited them. The spread of the music to North America became obvious. Casually at first they suggested making a film about how the music came to Canada and the United States.

"A lot of times if I throw out an idea, she'll latch on it," Doug said of Laurel.

Using their savings, they bought a video camera and sound equipment. At the annual Zimfests, or Zimbabwean Music Festival, Doug filmed people in concert. Zimfest brings over as many Zimbabwean musicians as it can afford, so the couple also started interviewing them. The documentary grew and grew, until they had filmed more than 100 interviews and shot more than 100 hours of raw footage.

"The interviewing process was a dream," Laurel Epps said of musicians they filmed. "They were telling the story of how this music changed their lives."

Marimba connections

Working a connection between the late Dumisani Maraire, one of the first Zimbabwean marimba musicians to come to the U.S., and musician Taj Mahal, they got him to narrate the film. Maraire and his group once toured with Taj Mahal.

"Soul Resonance" tells how in the early 1960s European colonists, fearing the demise of traditional Zimbabwean music, created a musical form not associated with any specific ethnic group. Using the wooden-key marimba, they developed the instrument and ensemble now used in North America. A programme was started at the Rhodesian Academy of Music to train Africans to teach African and western music. That became the Kwanongoma College of Music.

The music jumped across the Atlantic Ocean in 1968 when Maraire, a Kwanongoma student, came to the University of Washington, Seattle, as an artist in residence and stayed to study and teach ethnomusicology. Through the university and at Seattle and Pacific Northwest clubs, Maraire inspired new generations of musicians.

Muparutsa, who grew up playing marimba in Mutare, Zimbabwe, said traditional music really hadn't been in danger.

"It wasn't dying. They went underground," he said of musicians, particularly mbira players. "They were being harassed by the missionaries."

The Kwanongoma marimba tradition was imposed on Zimbabweans by colonialists, Muparutsa said. In Zimbabwe, most marimba is now played in the cities. A curious thing happened, though. African marimba players started putting their own flavour on it.

"They've taken it on themselves," Muparutsa said.

A new blend

That African influence, particularly through compositions and arrangements by Maraire and other Zimbabweans, has now created a new blend, as can be heard in Muparutsa's arrangement of "Chipembere," used in the title credits of "Soul Resonance."

"Soul Resonance" raises more questions even while answering others.

"What I wanted to do was tell this story … I wanted to share with the people playing this music what's going on," Doug Epps said. "It really broadens my perspective of what this is. It's basically a bottomless thing."

Through their website,, Laurel and Doug Epps will soon begin selling CDs of "Soul Resonance." – First published in Homer News

Permission for republication by Mr. Armstrong and the Homer News

Post published in: Entertainment

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