Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 5:50 PM on Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Marimba film premieres at Homer Doc Film Fest

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Tamba, Homer's all-women marimba group, practices at the Homer Council on the Arts in 2009 before heading to Boulder, Colo., for the International Zimbabwean Music Festival. Tamba is featured in Doug and Laurel Epps' "Soul Resonance." Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

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 shows at 8 p.m. Saturday 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 follows.

The Eighth Annual Homer Documentary Film Festival opens today with a gala showing and barbecue starting at 6 p.m. at the Homer Theatre (see schedule below).

After seeing a marimba concert at Alice's Champagne Palace years ago, Doug Epps, an electronics engineer, bush pilot and flight instructor, started playing music with Shamwari, one of the marimba groups that formed since Michele Stenger and Michael Gracz brought Zimbabwean music to Homer in the 1990s. Doug Epps said the complexity and polyrhythms perplexed him.

Zimbabwean marimba ensembles have seven or more instruments with soprano, tenor, baritone and bass tunings. Drums and gourd shakers, called hoshos, also add to the sound. Similar to concert marimbas, the wooden keys are like the white keys on a piano, with two F sharps added. Using rubber mallets, musicians play chords, multiple notes and other patterns, each instrument's sound interlocking with the other. Some pieces have been arranged from traditional songs of the mbira — the metal key "thumb piano" of the Zimbabwean Shona culture. Other songs are original, modern compositions.

"I started seeing the depth of this whole thing," Doug Epps said. "It's not just music. It goes way back."


Photo provided

Doug and Laurel Epps visit the Grand Canyon during their travels in filming "Soul Resonance."

When they left Homer, Doug and Laurel Epps had one criteria for their new home: Wherever they lived had to have Zimbabwean marimba music. Through dandemutande.org, 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.

The idea went from "maybe we'll do it" to "we're going to do it," he said.

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. They traveled from Homer to Massachusetts.

"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."

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 program 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 flavor on it.

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

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, www.sacredpathexplorations.com, Laurel and Doug Epps will soon begin selling CDs of "Soul Resonance." Now in Pagosa Springs, Colo., they plan to enter other film festivals.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.