Longtime Bellingham keyboardist Nancy Steele founded marimba ensemble Ruvara Marimba in 2006. The group plays annually with the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship choir and played at Zimfest, the international Zimbabwean Music Festival, in 2011.
They also perform at Bellingham Farmers Market, both downtown and in Fairhaven. Upcoming gigs include Elizabeth Park from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, July 12, with former band member Bethany Sullivan flying in from California; from noon to 1 p.m. July 25 at Western Washington University's Performing Arts Center Plaza; from 5 to 7:30 p.m. July 26 at Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro's beer garden; and from noon to 1:30 p.m. Sept. 8 at the downtown Farmers Market. Details: ruvara.org.
Question: What's your musical background?
Answer: My parents recognized my love for music and gave me private piano lessons for seven years, starting at age 9. I loved singing in choir in elementary-and particularly junior high school, as one of my choirmates was the late Billy Preston.
In the early '80s I performed and made a CD with flautist Sage Waters, as the Steelewaters Duo, and I taught piano for many years. Later I fell in love with marimba, took a beginning class and now attend Zimfest every year, taking marimba, hosho (dried gourd shakers), mbira (African thumb piano), drumming, singing and dance workshops. My spouse, Rick, and I - and other mbira players - weave mbira into Ruvara concerts; the whole band sings, too.
Q: What's the history of Ruvara Marimba?
A: The original band formed with a group of musicians, some of whom already played marimba. We didn't even have a bass marimba when we opened for Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African trumpet player and social justice activist, at the Nightlight Lounge (now The Underground). I eventually acquired seven instruments, enabling me to begin teaching beginning marimba in earnest, and the present-day band evolved from that.
Last September, drummer Nathan Matson joined us, and that adds a lot to our playing. Our members include Michele Beven, Galen Berger, Marna Fletcher, Aja Moon, Pete Moon, Deb Dole and Rick Steele on hosho. We get a lot of joy out of playing and interacting together, and have two teenage boys in the band who keep us older folks moving fast!
Q: Where did you grow up and when did you first become interested in music?
A: I grew up in Los Angeles and had a wonderful piano teacher who told my parents I had the potential to become a concert pianist. However I didn't become serious about music as a career until moving to Oregon in 1977, enrolling in music theory at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, and accompanying voice classes and concert choir as my work-study job. In 1980 I moved to Bellingham, where I earned a bachelor of music degree in piano performance from WWU in 1985.
Q: Who were some of your role models?
A: The late Abraham Dumisani Maraire (Dumi) brought Zimbabwean music to the U.S. as an artist-in-residence at the University of Washington in the late '60s, spreading it throughout the Northwest. When my spouse and I heard him play at Seattle's Northwest Folklife Festival in the mid-'90s, we were literally swept off our feet by the unbridled joy of this music! I remember being fascinated by the musicians rotating instruments from song to song; it looked like so much fun!
Aside from Dumi, Musasa Marimba - a talented former Friday Harbor band whose leader studied and played with Dumi - greatly inspired me to learn Zimbabwean marimba and mbira music. Coincidentally, one of the members of Musasa Marimba taught classes in Bellingham, and was my first teacher.
Q: What else is fun for you besides music?
A: I love reading, films, travel, long walks, friendships, community volunteering and entertaining at home with Rick!
The date of the show at Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro's beer garden was corrected July 13, 2012.
Reach MARGARET BIKMAN at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-2273.