In today’s musical world, one can hear marimbas in television commercials, on concert stages, or via streaming services. Marimba players are on football fields during halftime shows and in large arenas playing with rock bands. How did this rosewood keyboard instrument become such a standard part of our percussion family? Look no further than the marimba band from Guatemala that took America by storm over 100 years ago.
“The Hurtado Brothers Royal Marimba Band was very instrumental in bringing the Central American marimba to the United States over a century ago,” states Dr. David P. Eyler, Emeritus-in-Residence Professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. “Their importance to the development of the modern marimba keyboard as we know it today, with a fully chromatic range, and the rise in popularity of the marimba, as evidenced by its use in acoustic recordings as well as the appearance of marimba orchestras performing in this country and abroad, cannot be understated.” Eyler is an authority on this subject, thanks to his 1985 dissertation, “The History and Development of the Marimba Ensemble in the United States and Its Current Status in College and University Percussion Programs.”
THE HURTADO BROTHERS
During the last decades of the 19th century, marimba ensembles gained popularity throughout Guatemala. They were heard at every occasion, from religious ceremonies to secular dances, public celebrations, and festivals. Many of these ensembles were composed of players from one family; the Ovalles, Barrios, Bethancourts, and Hurtados were renowned marimba-playing families.
Sebastián Hurtado, born in 1846, married Manuela Benitez in 1871, and five of their 12 children — sons Vicente, Arnulfo, Celso, Jesús B., and Mariano, often referred to as the “younger Hurtados” — began playing their father’s marimba while very young. (“Jesús B.,” for Benitez, differentiates him from his cousin Jesús.)
Around the same time, four sons of Sebastián’s older brother, Toribio, also played the marimba. These “older Hurtados” — Jesús, Daniel, Gabriel, and Toribio Jr., also known as the Hurtado De León brothers — developed a fierce rivalry with their cousins.
According to David Vela’s book, Information on the Marimba, in 1896, Sebastián was the first person to construct a chromatic marimba, similar to a piano keyboard. Prior to that time, most marimbas were diatonic, without the “sharps and flats” found on modern instruments. These new marimbas had opulently decorated wooden frames and box-like wooden resonators. The Guatemalans also played an important role in the development of multiple-player performance by increasing the range of the instruments to accommodate as many as five players, standing elbow to elbow.
Comprised of the “younger Hurtados,” the Sebastián Hurtado and Sons Marimba Band began traveling throughout Guatemala in 1896, playing native Indian music for weddings, fiestas, and tribal ceremonies. Sebastián encouraged his sons to expand their repertoire by including classical and light classical works, such as Franz von Suppe‘s “Poet and Peasant Overture.” By this time, the typical Guatemalan marimba band had as many as 500 pieces in its repertoire, including popular dance music, waltzes, foxtrots, Latin dances, semi-classical, and classical works.
On September 15, 1901, the Sebastián Hurtado and Sons Marimba Band performed in front of the Palace of Quetzaltenango for Guatemalan President Manuel Cabrera. At this special event, Sebastián was awarded a silver medal and diploma from the Guatemalan Government for perfecting the chromatic marimba.
By the turn of the previous century, the marimba was an integral part of Guatemalan culture. Knowledge of the instrument began to spread to other countries as Guatemalan ensembles began to tour abroad.
Eyler explains the group’s first international tour: “In 1908, Sebastián’s sons set sail for New Orleans to begin a tour that was scheduled to last only six months, but the band’s enthusiastic receptions by the American public extended their stay to almost five years. The Hurtado Brothers Marimba Band opened at the White City Summer Resort, near New Orleans, where their versatility and colorful native costumes made an instant impression. From New Orleans, they traveled by train to New York, where they lived for three months. While playing in a theater on East 14th Street, William Morris, of the William Morris Agency, heard the band and signed them to a contract. They toured the American Music Hall circuit, playing in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Washington.
“Under the direction of Arnulfo,” Eyler added, “the group consisted of only four marimbists playing one large marimba. Their tremendous popularity can be attributed in part to the unique style of orchestration, which gave the ensemble a balanced, full sound.”
In late 1910, the brothers toured Europe. Audiences there were wildly enthusiastic, and although the band was asked to return to Europe the next season, Arnulfo was stricken with pneumonia, and the brothers were forced to return home, hoping that a change of climate would help Arnulfo. Unfortunately, his condition deteriorated and Arnulfo died in 1913. (Sebastián had preceded him in death the previous year.)
THE HURTADO BROTHERS ROYAL MARIMBA BAND
After Arnulfo died, Celso became the group’s leader and renamed the ensemble the Hurtado Brothers Royal Marimba Band. In addition to Jesús B. and Mariano, two nephews, Joaquin and Oscar Hurtado (brother Vincente’s sons), along with three other players (Virjilio Piedrasante, Ernesto Rivera, and Lorenzo Alonzo), joined the band. Celso also added a 5 1/2-octave marimba for the additional players, which increased the range of the ensemble. “Melody lines were doubled, or sometimes even tripled,” explains Eyler. “Counter-melodies and harmonies were spread over several registers, and a string bass was added to reinforce the bass line.
“Early in 1915, the Guatemalan Government asked the Hurtado Brothers Royal Marimba Band to become the official Guatemalan Representative at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco,” Eyler says. “The Exposition, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, was held February 20 to December 4, 1915. The Hurtados performed daily concerts at the Guatemalan pavilion, along with official banquets and private parties. According to Celso’s wife, they were the sensation of the entire Exposition, and could not fill all of the requests for special concerts at evening parties and balls. People lined up hours ahead of time in order to get into the Guatemalan Pavilion to hear the Hurtado Brothers. At the close of the Exposition in December, the Royal Marimba Band received the Gold Medal of Honor for their outstanding contributions to the event.”
During the Exposition, where they had performed for hundreds of thousands of people, Celso and his band impressed representatives from Columbia Records, who sent equipment from New York to San Francisco to record the band on location. One of their first recordings, made about August 1915, included Franz von Suppe’s “Pique Dame” and “Poet and Peasant” overtures. This recording was reported to have sold a half-million copies within a few weeks.
Following a brief tour of the Orpheum Theatre circuit in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane, Washington in 1916, the Hurtados traveled to Camden, New Jersey to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company. During these recording sessions, which lasted about six weeks, the band made approximately 20 records for Victor.
“I first discovered the Hurtado Brothers Royal Marimba Band in the late 1970s while collecting and researching early acoustic xylophone recordings,” recalls William L. Cahn, author of the 284-page discography The Xylophone in Acoustic Recordings (1877–1929) and a founding member of the Nexus percussion ensemble. “I acquired 14 original copies of records they made in 1916 for Victor following their appearance at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, where they had received enthusiastic praise for their polished performances. Their popularity introduced the marimba to American audiences. I have repeatedly listened to these recordings — each recorded in a single ‘take’ without any post-performance editing — and their musicianship and broad spectrum of nuances in the marimba band’s sound and interpretation are immediately evident.”
The majority of the Royal Marimba Band’s records were made during the two-year period beginning in 1915. A total of approximately 38 discs on the Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick labels were issued. A sample of one of their 1916 recordings, “Fading Leaves–Serenata,” can be heard at www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2Z1loCyDTk.
While recording for Victor, the Hurtados were signed to appear in the 1916 Ziegfeld Follies in New York City (with Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields). “After one year with the Ziegfeld Follies,” describes Eyler, “the Hurtado Band went to Philadelphia in 1917 for a two-week engagement at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which, due to their popularity, was promptly extended into the following year. While performing at the Ritz-Carlton, they adopted the costume that was to become their trademark: bolero shirts, cummerbunds, and bandanas wrapped around their heads.”
In 1919, the RKO Company contracted the Hurtados for a touring vaudeville show titled “Spanish Dreams,” their eighth tour of the U.S. The following year, the same agency booked the band for a hotel circuit in California, which included Los Angeles, Pasadena, and San Francisco.
The band began an extended engagement at the Le Bal Tabarin Dance Hall in Hartford, Connecticut in mid-1921. After playing there for almost three years, the members wanted to settle in one location, and the band moved to New York City around 1925. Work became increasingly scarce, in part due to the advent of talking motion pictures, and bickering amongst the brothers contributed to the eventual disbanding of the original group.
Celso Hurtado managed to keep remnants of the original band together, performing at hotels in New York and Canada, while also continuing to make recordings.
In 1939, Celso Hurtado brought the band to San Francisco where, after 12 years, they were again reunited with Jesús B. The brothers were contracted to play for the 1939 and 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition (also known as the Treasure Island Expo) in San Francisco. Afterwards, the members of the Hurtado family adopted San Francisco as their home, playing a few club dates in and around the Bay area. Eventually, all of the Hurtado brothers became U.S. citizens and remained in California.
After leaving his family marimba band, Celso became one of the first marimba soloists in history. Although he performed solo recitals as early as 1922, his most famous concert was on April 7, 1947 in Carnegie Hall — the first marimba soloist to perform on that world-renowned stage. Celso, then age 56, played eight of his own arrangements, including Niccolò Paganini’s “Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major;” “Hungarian Dance No. 6” by Johannes Brahms; “Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint-Saëns; Pablo de Sarasate’s “Caprice Basque;” “Malagueña” by Ernesto Lecuona; “Waltz in E-flat Major” by Frédéric Chopin; and Franz Liszt’s “Étude No. 3 in G-sharp minor, ‘La Campanella’” and “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor.”
A critic for The New York Times wrote about the sold-out concert: “Celso Hurtado, who was born in Guatemala but is resident of California, tried something different at Carnegie Hall last night — a solo program for the marimba. He played an instrument he has designed himself, and he achieved astonishing feats of virtuosity as to speed, crossing of hands, intertwining of the four sticks with which the marimba is played, and the achievement of varying sound effects. To watch Mr. Hurtado’s skillful deployment over the instrument was as fascinating as observing a trick acrobat.”
Claudio Cascales, percussionist, musicologist, and music professor at the Poet Julián Andúgar High School in Santomera, Murcia, Spain, states, “It is no coincidence that Celso is credited with being one of the first to execute rolls with one hand, or tremolos (known in Spain as ‘mandolin style’) in a concert. He also performed contrapuntal polyphonic passages with four mallets.”
Marimbist, historian, and educator David Harvey compares Celso Hurtado’s life and career to that of Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, who was born just two years after Hurtado. “Both musicians played a folk instrument from their native Latin countries, and subsequently elevated the status of their instruments to the concert stage by performing classical music repertoires that they singlehandedly created. There is probably not a classical guitarist alive who is unfamiliar with Segovia, but it is sad that most marimbists today have not been educated about Celso Hurtado.”
Celso’s last solo recital was on November 4, 1967 at the Orangewood Academy in Garden Grove, California. He played several original compositions — “Lamento Gitano,” “Indita Coquetta,” “Miniature Ballet Waltz,” “Gypsy Dance,” and “Quetzal” — along with some of his signature arrangements of classical pieces, including Heifetz’s version of “Hora Staccato” by Dinicu, which featured double octaves played with four mallets. He ended the program with his arrangement of Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo.”
Celso Hurtado died on February 3, 1968 at the age of 76.
Warren Hyer, of Hyer Percussion Products, remembers Celso Hurtado. “In part, due to those early performances by Celso, the marimba is now a legitimate solo instrument on the concert stage and the foremost mallet instrument in the percussion family. It is time for Celso to be honored for his long and groundbreaking career.”
David Harvey concludes, “The esteem with which Celso Hurtado was held by many musicians, critics, and audiences during his remarkable career bears witness to the impact he made on the status of the classical marimba, when virtually no one in the world thought the marimba was capable of artistic expression. Celso Hurtado devoted his life to the marimba, and whether we realize it or not, we marimbists are following in the footsteps of this patriarch of the percussive arts. So many college and professional marimba ensembles today are the musical progeny and percussive beneficiaries of the Hurtado Brothers and their marimba ensemble music.”