Mark Holdaway and Baba Marimba
by Mark Holdaway
Pink Floyd never became a great band until their leader Syd Barret had a psychotic break with reality while on LSD during one of their performances and had to leave the band. For almost a decade, Pink Floyd's music was defined by Syd's absence: "And when the band you're in starts playing different tunes, see you on the Dark Side of the Moon," and "Shine on you Crazy Diamond."
Baba Marimba was founded by Mr X, a seemingly sociable, generous, and tender hearted guy who turned into a heavy-handed control freak, but he had a great vision of what this band could be. He attracted great musicians who he thought were pliable and meek to fulfill his vision of a world beat/jazz/pop fusion dance band without a single keyboard or string instrument (they did let me and my guitar into the band as a late comer, because it worked).
On the first day in the studio recording our first CD "Tango de los Muertos" (2012), the conflict was so bad that the recording engineer said "I've never been treated this way by a client. One more scene like that and you are out of here, never to return." The dreaded scene came the next day, and instead of the band getting kicked out, Mr X left and quit the band.
"How are we going to get him back?" asked one band member. I chimed in "This is a gift from God - we move forward as we are - we can totally do this on our own." The meek had inherited the band.
Yes, Baba Marimba is a band without a leader. Or more properly, we are a band with five leaders. If something is important, one (or more) leaders will step forward and we'll do it - or it won't get done.
We have no model in the world for how to make this band work - we aren't exactly copying The Beatles with four part vocals, drums, bass and two guitars. We aren't exactly copying Louis Armstrong with a jazz combo. And we aren't copying the marimba band model playing world music. Baba Marimba is one of a kind, and we have to recreate ourselves each time we play.
We love to improvise and create new music. On a good rehearsal - usually right after a gig when we have some breathing room - we can write five or six new songs. Some are bought in by individuals, but the best material springs up from all of us in an organic fashion.
We all get to play leader. The baritone marimba (we all take turns playing it) is the heart beat of the band, and it is often the first piece of the puzzle when we create a new song. It is the piece that everyone else must fit together with. It often plays the role of "the bass" - the harmonic and rhythmic foundation which everyone else's notes and rhythms must respect. It is not a bass instrument, but goes down in range to the guitar's low notes. Actually, the world percussion instruments also have notes in the same low range, so the bass of the band is co-created by three instruments: bari marimba, guitar, and percussion.
We all have to be sensitive to stay out of each others' ways and to build something coherent. When the marimba goes high, if I am playing guitar, I will go low to cover the bass sound in the band, and that switch-up will provide one step in a kaleidoscopically changing pattern. The drums will punctuate appropriately with their low beats, no matter what the marimba and guitar are doing.
That thing we do, with no one person playing bass, but three different instruments filling in parts of the bass line? We also have that going on in the drums - usually we have two drummers, and sometimes three or four drummers. Of course we don't want them all playing the same thing, but something more expansive. How the drums fit together is its own kind of ecosystem, with the different drum parts feeding off of each other, speaking to each other, growing and waning in power, complexity, and emotional expression.
And then we have the horns, Heidi Wilson on sax and Mike Ankomeus on trumpet. I could say the baritone marimba is the heart of the band. Or I could say the drums are the heart of the band. Both of those get people up and dancing to our tribal jungle mix. But really, it is the horns that are the heart of the band. If you have heard Baba Marimba, the horns are probably what you think of when humming along to your memory. They are cool and jazzy and soulful, singing an emotionally charged melody that people can connect with. Most important, the horns are tight. They set the standard of perfection that the rest of the band must rise to. If a bari line, or a drum accompaniment, or a guitar part isn't up to the the quality of the crystal clear horn lines, why bother?
Mark Holdaway on Playing with Other Musicians
When playing with other musicians, I seek to connect with them on many levels. When I play music with other people, I employ most of my abilities as a human being to the task at hand. It is a physical syncing up - like crickets in a summer night. Pay attention to the way your musical partner or partners are breathing, how they are moving with the beat, and let your own body reply.
Intellect is important - watch what your partners are doing, even if they are playing instruments you don't understand - you can pick up on changes even if you don't know what exactly is happening (i.e., you will notice a change in where their fingers or thumbs are moving). If you do understand music, your intellect can help even more as you recognize the changes in chords and rhythms and can plot your own trajectory through the matrix of music that surrounds you.
When I play with other musicians, I seek a heart-to-heart connection with them, seeking to understand their essence and to co-create something of beauty which reflects the reality of where we each are in this moment together. And sometimes, I succeed.
So now that you know what elements are at play in Baba Marimba, let me describe how we might co-create a song. We all carry the sounds and capabilities of the other members of the band around in our heads and hearts, as if the band makes a prism that we take with us and we experience the world through that prism. I'll hear a tidbit of music on NPR and think "No, that one won't work"... or "YES, I could bring something like this to Baba Marimba." Any of us can bring a seed of music to the band. Just add water and watch it grow.
But the musical seed might not be such an explicit thing. A few weeks ago, Mike on trumpet was warming up in a strange key, and I heard how I could tweak the harmonies implied by his music and bend what he was playing so it would work with the limited harmonies of the bari marimba. I launched into a guitar line and kept a marimba part going in my head (there was nobody to play it - just wait till we get back into the studio to record). Robert "Swami" Peizer said "Oh, that fits with a traditional African drum song I know," and he starts into his part. Michael Holloway starts in with a jazz-tinged drum kit accompaniment to counter Swami's world percussion slant, and the whole thing is expanding and vibrating like 12 oz of Coca-Cola loose in the Space Shuttle, and then Heidi comes along and starts to paint the whole thing with warm emotive brush strokes of pure saxophone beauty.
For the most part, each person is free to use their special talents to figure out what they should play and how to make it work with the rest of the music - in other words, at age 52, this is the band that I have been dreaming of being in ever since I was 12. And then someone yells "Hey, we better record this." If we don't record it, when we are done the music will seep back into the ground, probably never remembered again, but surely it will be good fertilizer for the next amazing jam that overtakes us. When we finally stop, someone says "So Mark, just what WAS that?" I reply "Oh, Mike started it, I just jumped on board." We all did.
A few months ago, we were discussing our vision for the next CD. One vision was about dance music. Another was about performing more sit down concerts. Another vision was about carefully adding multiple tracks together in the recording process (you know, four drums, three marimbas, three horns, a guitar, a kalimba, and a keyboard, all played by just five people trying to rise to their full potential). Another vision was about just going into the studio and simply playing, letting the microphone capture the living breathing soul of Baba Marimba that emerges in the heat of the jam. In fact, we all had totally different visions of what Baba Marimba is and how to capture or harness its energy to create our next CD. One person said "Come on, guys, how are we going to make progress if we don't share a common vision?" I replied "This band is big enough to encompass all of these different visions. The diversity of this band is what makes us strong... or more precisely, our ability to love and respect each other and each others' musics in spite of our disparate visions is what makes us strong."
We appear to be in this band for life - which means if you don't catch us in concert this month, you probably have many years left to see us. But if you wait 10 years to see us, you will probably be kicking yourself that you waited that long.
Heidi Wilson - saxophone, marimba and vocals
Mike Ankomeus - trumpet, flute, marimba, melodica, percussion, vocals, didgeridoo and conch shells
Mark Holdaway - guitar, kalimbas, marimba, trombone and vocals
Robert "Swami" Peizer - world percussion and marimba
Michael Holloway - drum kit, marimba, and vocals
We use our diverse instrumentation to create an exotic tapestry of varying musical textures that inspire and delight. Above all, our music is fun!
"Baba Marimba is just about as much fun as you can have!" - Jim Ruff, Socorro, NM
We invite you to listen to clips from each song on Baba Marimba's 2012 CD Tango de los Meurtos.
Learn more about Mark Holdaway and his kalimba music on Sonoran Arts Network HERE>