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Constructing the Modern Marimba

A retired master works with UNLV professor on documenting the building of what may be the final instrument of his career.

Campus News  |  Feb 12, 2018  |  By Timothy Jones
Blocks are laid out during the construction of the James Bailey marimba

James Bailey, right, works with UNLV students on the construction of a marimba.

Editor's Note: 

The College of Liberal Arts' University Forum lecture series presents Constructing the Modern Marimba, a talk by music professor Timothy Jones, at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 13, 2018, at the Barrick Museum Auditorium. The free event includes a performance and showing of a documentary film. Here, Jones explains why the marimba featured in the film was unique.


Meeting with retired music professor James Bailey in June 2016 over a cup of coffee in Adelaide Hills, Australia, we developed an idea for a collaborative project that would involve three countries, the Las Vegas community, and three departments on the UNLV campus.

Marimba building is a closely guarded craft, with only a handful professionals operating in the world. Baily had built 40 marimbas in his career, but was now retired. He wanted to make one more marimba, but this time to document the process — not only for his legacy, but to show marimba players just how much work goes into the making of the instrument, allowing them to appreciate their instrument in a deeper way.

In January Bailey and the UNLV Percussion Studio began to build a five-octave concert marimba on the UNLV campus. Not only did we embark on the project in its own right, but we worked with two film students to turn the process into a first-of-its-kind documentary.

Similar in appearance to a xylophone, a marimba is a percussion instrument that consists of a set of wooden bars arranged like the keys of a piano and struck with mallets. Underneath, a series of pipes, called resonators, help amplify the sound.


With the help of Rico Franklin, a licensed exotic wood importer from Kansas, the finest rosewood was sourced from Honduras. Collaborating with Dave Rowe in the art department, Bailey began the hands-on work with UNLV students to cut, shape, and tune the 60 individual bars that make up a five-octave marimba. The five-octave range is the standard for a professional concert marimba, allowing performers to access a wide variety of literature and genres. Using local suppliers and SRS Fabrication a custom frame was designed and built, and a unique set of resonators were carefully shaped and tuned to finish this decadently beautiful musical instrument.

The unveiling of the marimba took place May 9 with a dedication by the director of the School of Music and performances by me and my students for a large audience in the Doc Rando Recital Hall.

In the months following, film students Brenna Spector and Nick Mastroluca  sifted through hours of footage to bring together a documentary that chronicles the marimba building process, and brings to light its historical importance from its roots in Africa, migration to Central and South America, and becoming the national instrument of both Guatemala and Mexico. Featuring interviews with students, Bailey, Rico Franklin, me, and leading marimba artists such as Nebojsa Zivkovic and Javier Nandayapa we hope the film will become an important piece in percussion education.

The film’s premiere Feb. 13 is part of the University Forum Lecture Series, and will be preceded by a live performance on the Bailey Marimba by the students involved in the instrument’s construction.