Friday, April 27, 2007

Don Jorge Makes His Own Marimbas

My name is Don Jorge Avila Morales, and I was born on the 19th of April in 1927. A few weeks ago I became eighty years old.

My experience, well, I believe God himself grabbed me when I was a child, and he made me realize that I loved the art of the marimba. At six years old I set up a row of wooden planks and pretended it was my marimba. I would have liked to have a little toy marimba, but my mother and father were very poor and they couldn't buy me anything. At my age I couldn't work, or make any money, so instead I set up my little row of planks. I even made a little stand to put them on. I looked at a big marimba, and I tried to make mine the same. With my little planks I was happy, and I would stand by them, sing and dance. That was how I made my first marimba, when I was six years old.

Around this time I got some of my cousins together. I said "Come with me, amigos, we'll get together like the groups that come to town to play concerts."

"Okay," they said.

We put together all of our imaginary marimbas, and we would play together almost every day. We didn't really know what we were doing, but in time we actually started to learn how to play songs. The years passed, but this same group of guys stayed together. By the time we were all about ten, we could play a little better. We played famous songs, like "Ferrocarril de Los Altos" and "Lagrima de Telma". By the time I was thirteen, I had made my first full size marimba. It didn't have a very good sound, but I loved playing it, va? As a group, we would perform little concerts. I made a violón out of an old bucket and a wooden pole, and we managed to get a sound out of it. We all liked playing, and we would get together every Sunday to play at some one's house. I loved it. By the time I was fifteen I had formed my first real group, with a lot of the same kids, except we were beginning to grow up. In those years I formalized my group, and when I turned twenty I got married. At my wedding I celebrated by playing my marimba. All of my friends came, and they made music as a gift to me. They didn't charge me anything for their time. It was beautiful.

I continued in the work that made me so happy, and I continued making marimbas, until I was finally making proper, concert-size marimbas to sell in Guatemala. I have even sent some of my marimbas abroad: eight marimbas to the United States, one to Canada, a few to Honduras and El Salvador. In this way I have passed through my eighty years, little by little, living a life of the marimba. I go to concerts, and I play wherever they take me to play. I have played at festivals where there are seven, eight, or even ten marimbas all playing at once. Once, they held a big competition in Tecpan. They brought us to play, and when we came home we had the first prize. My grandchildren also play the marimba, and they've been playing concerts in Antigua. This weekend I am going with some of my children and grandchildren to play marimba in the capital. for the Guatemalan Journalists' Association.

Don Jorge's son hold a photo of his father's band, taken some time in
the mid 1970's. Jorge is second from the right, behind the big marimba.

I keep making marimbas. I am a very poor man, but my beautiful God has given me the wealth of knowing how to do something special. For me, it isn't a bad job, but it certainly has taken a lot out of me over the years.

When I started to make marimbas, I just followed my own curiosity. Once, my parents held a cofraria*, and they hired a marimba to play for their guests. I went close to the marimba to hear how it made sound, and to see how the keys were registered. I got so close that the musician smacked me with his mallets. He thought I was trying to mess up his instrument.

*A cofraria is, in essence, a party held in honor of local patron saints. The responsibility for hosting the party is rotational, and each year a new group of families is both honored with the chance to host the party and burdened with the cost of the celebrations.

"Señor," I said, "I am simply looking at your marimba to see how it makes sound. I am building my own marimba. Why did you hit me?"

"No lies!" He said. "What do you really want, kid?"

I looked up and said, "Even though you are very big and I am still small, I would like to play marimba some day."

I took him to see the marimba I was making in my home, and when he saw it he begged my pardon for hitting me. That was my start. My father was a carpenter, and he gave me some advice about how I could work with wood, as well. So, that was how I began this art of the marimba. I'm very poor, but everything is how god wanted it, va?

We buy the wood in big pieces, we cut it, and then we go about making the keys in a range from contra tiple to el tiple, el centro, and el bajo. Beneath the keys you must make the sound chambers, bigger and bigger. You must look for wood that is beautiful, so that it will give a good sound. These days a lot of the best wood comes from very far away, and you need a lot of money because it is so expensive. There was a time when we harvested the wood here in Guatemala, but now it's mostly gone. There are five kinds of wood: el hormigo, rosul, granadillo, ebony, and rosewood. El hormigo is the most expensive, and you can only find it near the coast, close to the border with Mexico. All of the different woods have a beautiful sound. What matters most is the ability of the one making the marimba. If god is not helping me, then the wood will have a poor sound. If I do it right, and God is willing, then the wood will sing.

Marimba pieces in Jorge's workshop.

Click the button to hear Don Jorge play a song he
wrote about the town he lives in.

Public Office, Natural Disasters

Now, on the subject of serving my pueblo, I am proud to say I began my time in the military when I was eighteen years old. I am a veteran. I spent time living in the barracks. For most of my service I was with the air force, in Chimaltenango. I never earned anything in my time as a soldier, I was there by the force of my will alone. Later, I held several positions in the municipality, as regidor and syndico, because that was where the other politicians wanted me to be. When I entered my fiftieth year, I was elected mayor. In those days we weren't really paid for this work, either. As the leader of El Tejar, I was paid fifty quetzales per month.

In my life, I have made some sacrifices. I know how to plant beans and corn, and some other plants, so my family can eat when there isn't enough money.

When I was mayor there were no resources to work with. We had a hard time. Even so, we left a memory of ourselves in the municipality. We did a few things, we installed a mechanical well, we built a park. Today, it is a happy thing to serve as mayor, because you are paid well, and the city receives its 12% from the federal government in order to complete bigger projects.

One evening we were holding a meeting in a new high school. My secretary, my treasurer, and some other people were there with me. We were working into the night because the school was due to open in eight days. We had no idea what was coming. It was late, and so we said "Let's all go to bed, and get back to this tomorrow." We all left, and by the time I was lying down it must have been about two in the morning. Suddenly I felt a huge earthquake. "My god," I said, "Why are you punishing me?"

The walls of my house, and the roof, they fell down onto my sons and my babies. The beds were all destroyed, everything was destroyed. We were frightened, because we couldn't find one of my daughters. A friend of mine was helping me look for my girl; we were searching through the rubble and dust. Finally we found her, under some pieces of the roof. A rafter had fallen on her, and when we managed to lift it we could see her face was swollen and bleeding. We pulled her out from under the rubble, and took her to the hospital. Thanks to god she survived, and now she is thirty years old.

Don Jorge plays a song with his grandson, who he is teaching to play
the marimba. This child's mother is the daughter who was rescued
from beneath a rafter in the story above.

As the mayor, I was responsible for taking away the twenty six people who died in the earthquake. They were buried under walls, in their sleeping clothes. There were so many of them. The judge declared that we needed to go and take all of them away, so I went out with my secretary and we found others who could help. We had to clear away adobe, walls, furniture, to get to those who were still underneath. Little by little, we pulled them all out. I also gathered all of the injured people together, and we went to the hospital in a group. It was all very sad. They said I was in charge, but what could I do to help the entire town at one time? Or when a disaster had fallen on the entire republic?

Other countries tried to help, but really all of the aid went to the government. We had some assistance in our little town, but it wasn't much. We had a little milk, a little rice, beans--not much. We received no money. It seemed there were so many nations coming to help, but it didn't seem like the help really had that much of an effect. Some organizations came to help us build affordable houses. The walls were made of plaster and wood, the roofs were made of tin. This helped, but still we had to pay something in order to have one of these houses. Later, the Red Cross came and gave away some other houses made of boards and corrugated tin. To have one of these houses, you needed to work with them for fifteen days. This program helped. To tell the truth, there were so many groups coming and going, trying to accomplish different things that it got to be a little hard for me to keep all of them straight in my mind.

We began to build shelters out of nylon, and for a while we were all living in these champas on the municipal football field. Other cities and countries donated the materials we used for our shelters. A few times we had helicopters come and land in a field near town. They brought us blankets and sheets, and food for those of us who really had nothing at all. These gifts helped us very much.

For my part, I wouldn't ever like to have another earthquake here in El Tejar. It was as though absolutely everything came down in one blow. Here, and in Chimaltenango, Parramos, Itzapa, Comalapa, and in Patzicia. I believe it was worse here than in other parts of the republic.

Frankly, life has been pretty difficult. Some of us are living a hard life, and others among us are living even harder lives. Those who died in the earthquake are the saddest of all. Among the dead were some of those friends who would play marimba with me when we were children. Their walls fell down on top of them.

We must go on, until God says "This is where all the music and art must end." His law says that our bodies must die. That is how I will live my life.