The five men and three women of the Oregon-based Balafon Marimba Ensemble take a high energy, multilayered, approach to the music of Africa and the Caribbean. Performing on home-made instruments, the group roars with a highly-percussive intensity. While nearly half of their material comes from Zimbabwe, the ensemble's repertoire includes tunes from Zaire, Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Balafon Marimba Ensemble was formed in 1981 during a class at Oregon State University. After building their own marimbas, the group began performing throughout the western United States. When the university began to insist on determining the places where they could perform, the ensemble broke from the school and built a second set of instruments which they continue to play.
In 1989, The Balafon Marimba Ensemble became more serious about their career, hired a manager and sought a record label. Although Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart's busy schedule prevented him from accepting the group's invitation to produce their debut album, he invited the ensemble to open the Dead's Mardi Gras show in Oakland, California. Two years later, he had the group perform as part of a concert celebrating the release of his book, "Planet Drum" at the Bookseller's Convention in Las Vegas.
Although the members of the Balafon Marimba Ensemble work in a variety of outside occupations-everything from managing a sporting goods store to baking for a vegetarian restaurant -- they remain as committed to their music as ever. While only three original membersGray Mercer, Leslie Crisp and Ann Takamoto-are still with the group, the newer members have played with the Balafon Marimba Ensemble for more than a decade.