Otto Gumaelius

Marimba & Mbira Music From Southern Africa

Otto Gumaelius is a London based, Botswana raised, performing artist & teacher of southern African folk music on the marimba.

Filtering by Category: Memories

Growing Up With The Marimba: The Zimba Marimba Years. Part 3/3

This third and final post in this series is dedicated to my wonderful years in Sweden, as a member of Zimba Marimba Band, led by Peta Axelsson.

Zimba Marimba Band

I first met Zimba Marimba Band in 1998, when I traveled to Sweden that Easter with my Dad. Whilst we were there, my Uncle saw a newspaper article about a Swedish marimba group that would be performing in a nearby town – so we headed to the show that weekend and I met the group. We met up again, a few weeks later, in Åstorp, where I joined one of their classes and shared some of the music we were playing in Botswana.

Sharing some songs with a very young Zimba Marimba in Åstorp, 1998. 

Sharing some songs with a very young Zimba Marimba in Åstorp, 1998. 

I met up with the group again a few years later, on another family visit to Sweden, and got to spend a bit of time with them, workshopping and performing. The experience came to also reveal that my niece is a very talented drummer.

Zimba Marimba Band, 2002. 

Zimba Marimba Band, 2002. 

It wasn't until 2003 when I moved to Sweden to do my International Baccalaureate diploma that I finally joined Zimba Marimba Band – which was an absolute delight, and something I will always look back on with great fondness. In that first year, we got to perform for the King and Queen of Sweden at the Research Centre in Lund.

We recorded our debut album Zimba Marimba Alive in 2004, in a cosy studio in Bjärred – a town just outside Lund. The album included 14 traditional and contemporary songs from Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa – including compositions by Michael Sibanda, Alport Mhlanga and Sheasby Matiure.

We then started planning for a study tour to Botswana and South Africa – which we embarked on in February 2004. It was such a pleasure getting to introduce my "new family" to my "old family" – and one of the highlights of that trip was our performance for Kgosi Mosadi Seboko, the paramount chief of my mother's tribe – the Balete of southern Botswana.

Performing at Maru-A-Pula Secondary School in Botswana, 2005

Performing at Maru-A-Pula Secondary School in Botswana, 2005

In the winter of 2005, I traveled with Peta to Iceland to work with Robert Falkner's groups. We taught the groups there marimba music and dances from Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa – and had a fantastic few days working with the young people there. 

Later that year, Zimba Marimba began plans to travel to the USA for the west coast’s annual Zimbabwean music festival – ZimFest – a celebration of Zimbabwean music and culture. We had a wonderful week of workshopping, performing, networking, live marimba and mbira music and traditional dancing. Some of my personal highlights included seeing the Chigamba family perform – namely, Irene Chigamba dancing, and her father, Tute Chigamba, playing mbira and Chipindura; getting to hear Michael Sibanda (my first marimba teacher) perform; getting my first taste of Mbira Dzavadzimu from Fradreck Mujuru; and learning Mhande, a ritual rainmaking dance, with Ilana Moon. We came back from the USA with a new energy and great eagerness to learn more.

Peta organised several workshops with musicians like Martin Svensson, Luckson Chikutu, Tipei Marazanye and Celso Paco to name but a few. We soon started fundraising to get ourselves back onto African soil – and we were fortunate enough to get a boosting from a local culture fund, which saw us meet our funding target. We left for South Africa in August 2006, and spent a few days there before heading on to Mozambique to first work with the National Dance Company of Mozambique in the capital, and later, with Timbila master maker, composer and player, Venancio Mbande, in Inhambane. We then set off for Zimbabwe – where we spent our time between Harare and Chiriseri in Domboshawa. This, for me, was an utmost incredible study tour as we really got to submerge ourselves in the rich musical and rhythmic culture of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. We studied with performing artists and teachers like Rujeko Dumbutshena; Ronnie Daliyo; Tute Chigamba; Hwamanda Dance Troupe; and uZambezi to name but a very few. Many of the names are hard to recall now after so long, but the faces and joyous moments live vividly on in me.

Towards the end of our stay, we gave a concert at the College of Music alongside several other artists, which was apparently broadcast on national television. This was probably because we played Hondo – a marimba adaptation of a very spiritual mbira song that says Zimbabwe's liberation came about through bloodshed, as was predicted by the spirit medium Chaminuka (Zimbabwe yakauya nehondo; Chaminuka wakauraiwa – nehondo, vakomana). 

Mbira Nyunganyunga workshop with Geoffrey in Chiriseri, 2006.

Mbira Nyunganyunga workshop with Geoffrey in Chiriseri, 2006.

2006 marked my final year as a student in Sweden. I had applied for university in Edinburgh and got accepted. So after our trip to Zimbabwe, I only had a few more shows with the group before leaving. I remember quite fondly our last concert, at Kulturnatten (Culture Night) in Lund. We were fresh from Zimbabwe and buzzing; and the concert was absolute magic! Lucky for me, it wasn’t quite a final goodbye – as I still had my family in Lund so would be back a few times a year.

We travelled one final time to Zimbabwe in May 2007 as Zimba Marimba Band – on special invitation to participate in the annual Harare International Festival of the Arts, otherwise known as HIFA. Our one and only billed performance was so warmly received that we were invited to perform again on the main open stage on the Saturday. We really had a fantastic time in Zimbabwe – and I’m so thankful to the Swedish ambassador, Sten Rylander, who was instrumental in getting us there.

Zimba Marimba performing at HIFA, 2007.

Zimba Marimba performing at HIFA, 2007.

I will remain eternally grateful to my dear friend Peta Axelsson for all the opportunities she has brought to my life. Had it not been for her enthusiasm and love for Africa, I really wouldn’t be the person I am today. Tatenda zvikuru! 

Growing Up With The Marimba: The Maru A Pula Years. Part 2/3

This second post is dedicated to my years playing marimba at Maru-a-Pula Secondary School, from 2000 to 2003. 

I went through three groups whilst in high school, all led by Alport Mhlanga, who was one of the key pioneers of the Zimbabwean marimba as we know it today. You can read more about that here

In 2000, we started off as a small group of 4 that had joined Maru-a-Pula from Thornhill Primary School. We would often sneak into the marimba practice room behind the assembly hall during break time to play our favorite songs from primary school. It wasn't long before Mr Mhlanga picked up on our "tinkering", as he called it, and gave us the opportunity to piggy back on some of the senior band's performances, doing a few numbers at their shows.

After a while, my friend Tshepiso Tebogo-Maruping and I were the only two who wanted to keep up with marimba, so we joined one of the afternoon groups, comprised mainly of Form 2 (9th grade) students. However, their lack of enthusiasm soon led to the group falling apart, and the following year Tshepiso and I moved on and banded up with a larger group. I played in this group until I left Maru-a-Pula in May 2003. At the time of my departure, the band was made up of 8 people - Tshepiso Tebogo-Maruping, Lesego Letsapa, Lebo Letsie, Bonolo Moletsane, Liliana Saplontai, Goroma Mazonde, Sharon Sibanda and me. I was the only boy, and this was typical of marimba bands at Maru-a-Pula. We started off as two boys, but Kealeboga soon left due to family commitments. 

We pretty much spent every break time, lunch time, and all free afternoons practicing, practicing, practicing! We never grew bored or tired, and would only head home because we had to! I have many, many fond memories in the marimba rehearsal room. We performed frequently, both in and out of school. 

Looking back, I think some of my fondest memories are of the stories that Baba (Mr Mhlanga, as we fondly referred to him as) had to share. We didn't always understand them straight away, but there was always a profound meaning to everything he shared. I think this is why it was so hard accepting his passing in June 2012. All I can do is be grateful for the three fantastic years I got to play in his bands, and all the incredible learning I got to do under his wing.

Below are a few pictures taken from my very last performance with the band, on May 20th 2013, the day I moved from Botswana to Sweden! "Till the bitter end", as they say! 

Performing at Main Mall in Gaborone, 2003.  (Left to right - Front row: Goroma, Otto, Lesego. Middle row: Tshepiso, Liliana, Sharon. Back row: Bonolo, Mr Mhlanga, Moipone.)  

Performing at Main Mall in Gaborone, 2003. (Left to right - Front row: Goroma, Otto, Lesego. Middle row: Tshepiso, Liliana, Sharon. Back row: Bonolo, Mr Mhlanga, Moipone.)  

MaP Marimba Band
MaP Marimba Band

Growing Up With The Marimba: The Thornhill Primary School Years. Part 1/3

This is going to be a three-part post, dedicated to the three bands I played in during my school years.

In this first post, I'd like to share some pictures and memories from 1998 and 1999, where it all began - playing in Michael Sibanda's marimba band in Thornhill Primary School, in Gaborone, Botswana. 

I still remember as if it were yesterday, how Mr Sibanda would come to my Standard 5A class looking for some of the students he had selected for the junior band who were not attending band practise. Each time he'd come, I'd enegeticlly raise my hand and say "Mr Sibanda, if you pick me to be in the band I promise I'll always show up!". I don't know if that's what did the trick, but I certainly made it into the band the following year, and continued to play till the end of the following, and final, year of primary school. 

Initially, having always been a very shy child growing up, I was quite intimidated by the Standard 7 kids in the group, who were in the year above me, so I mainly stuck to the tenor, the safe instrument in any junior marimba band, where I nonetheless have fond memories of playing popular southern African songs like Thoko (originally written by Mahotella Queens I believe) next to Moabi Garebamono, and Pata Pata (by Miriam Makeba) next to Jaanki Dullabhai.

There would be the random occasion when I'd venture out to the other instruments in the band, and to my surprise, the one time I tried the soprano, the lead instrument in a marimba band, I was actually cheered on by the Standard 7s, which really encouraged me to be more confident. 

That year we did a wide variety of shows in school and at various events in and around the capital city. We even got to travel to South Africa to perform at the 23rd World International Society of Music Eduction conference in Pretoria.

In my final year of primary school I really came out of my shell, and ventured very confidently onto other instruments in the band. Towards the end of the year, we got to travel once again to South Africa, this time to record the school's debut marimba album - Thornhill Marimba Magic, which comprised of 8 songs including Botsotsi, Sibanda's graduation piece from Kwanongoma College of Music - today played by many marimba bands around the world.

I will remain eternally grateful to Michael Sibanda for whatever it was he saw in me that led him to put me, and keep me, in the Thornhill Marimba Band!

Here are some of the few pictures I have from those years.

Thornhill Marimba Band, 1998.  (From left to right: Nuru, Tebatso, Meegan, Tshegofatso, Tumisang, Jaanki, Kealeboga, Setso, Otto, Waitse, Michael Sibanda, Lame, Tshegofatso, Neo, Tapiwa, Andrea, Mana, Tshepiso, Thandeka, Tlamelo, Obakeng, Moabi, Masego).

Thornhill Marimba Band, 1998. (From left to right: Nuru, Tebatso, Meegan, Tshegofatso, Tumisang, Jaanki, Kealeboga, Setso, Otto, Waitse, Michael Sibanda, Lame, Tshegofatso, Neo, Tapiwa, Andrea, Mana, Tshepiso, Thandeka, Tlamelo, Obakeng, Moabi, Masego).

Thornhill Marimba Band, 1999.  (From top left to bottom right, vertically: Yvette, Lame, Michael Sibanda, Lilliana, Otto, Setso, Tshepiso, Amy, Among, Sharon, Seele, Boikanyo, Charlotte, Kealeboga, Careen, Keletso, Jaanki, Mogi, Karabo, Thamani, Amber, Lenitame, Sara, Sakhile)

Thornhill Marimba Band, 1999. (From top left to bottom right, vertically: Yvette, Lame, Michael Sibanda, Lilliana, Otto, Setso, Tshepiso, Amy, Among, Sharon, Seele, Boikanyo, Charlotte, Kealeboga, Careen, Keletso, Jaanki, Mogi, Karabo, Thamani, Amber, Lenitame, Sara, Sakhile)

Thornhill Marimba Magic, 1999.

Thornhill Marimba Magic, 1999.

Final assembly, 1999.

Final assembly, 1999.

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