PAS Hall of Fame

Zeferino Nandayapa

 by Rick Mattingly

Javier Nandayapa remembers a time in 1989 when Marimba Nandayapa was scheduled to play a concert at a police department building in Mexico City. There were five musicians in Marimba Nandayapa; there were three people in the audience. Javier, who had just started playing with the group, was angry that the concert had not been better publicized, and so he asked his father, Zeferino, to cancel the performance. “He told me to shut my mouth,” Javier recalls. “He said, ‘If only one person takes time to attend our concert, it is worth it to play for that one person.’”

The small audience at that concert was atypical, however, as throughout his career, Zeferino played for thousands of people all over the world with Marimba Nandayapa, with symphony orchestras in numerous countries, and as a solo artist.

PAS Hall of Fame member Gordon Stout saw Zeferino perform one of his last concerts in 2010 at a marimba festival in Minneapolis, hosted by Fernanco Meza. “Zeferino was a very old man at the time,” Stout said, “and it took him about ten minutes to walk on stage and take his place behind the marimba—and he received a standing ovation the entire time! It was a magical moment. When he started to play, that was just as magical.

“He was an extremely important in the history of the marimba, as it transitioned from the South American form to the modern one,” Stout added. “He also dedicated his life to the marimba music of his country and culture. The Nandayapa family is one of the eminent families of the marimba still to this day. There is no question that Zeferino’s significance will last for generations into the future.”

In his letter nominating Zeferino to the PAS Hall of Fame, PAS Past President John R. Beck noted that, “Under his leadership, Marimba Nandayapa not only preserved traditional folk music for marimba band, but also expanded the repertoire to include transcriptions of classical music and new compositions. We can trace many keyboard percussion ensemble compositions to roots in traditional Mexican marimba bands. While such groups as the Marimba Masters no longer exist, and other ensembles occasionally perform marimba band music, Marimba Nandayapa is perhaps the oldest continuously performing ensemble of this important genre of percussion ensembles.”

Dr. David P. Eyler, Professor of Music at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, remembers meeting Zeferino in the early 1990s when he attended the Yamaha Summer Camp at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, hosted by Dr. Larry Kaptain. “After that experience, I had numerous times to observe him and his group at various events throughout the U.S., including at PASIC in San Antonio and at the University of Minnesota,” Eyler said. “Zeferino was always a gentleman, and his family helped me on several occasions to find music for my students’ marimba ensemble to perform.

“The development of marimba music in the U.S. can be traced to the influence of the Mexican marimba bands,” Eyler continued. “The Nandayapa family shared that traditional Mexican marimba band experience through various tours within the U.S. and other parts of the world, and of course within their own country. As they brought marimba music to the attention of the world, it increased the popularity of marimba ensembles and encouraged others to write for multiple players on one instrument, as evidenced today with many of our percussion publishers. Zeferino was a national treasure in Mexico and made great strides in promoting the marimba around the world. The tradition of sharing marimba music is living on in his sons, because Zeferino instilled in them the love of playing the marimba and the importance of continuing to share the traditional Mexican marimba band experience with others.”

Javier says that his family is very happy about Zeferino’s election into the PAS Hall of Fame. “This recognizes his musical passion, his virtuosity, his work dedication, his teachings, and his human warmth, which were all reflected in his playing and in the success of his efforts to bring traditional Mexican marimba to the great concert halls of the world,” Javier said. “He wisely connected traditional Mexican music with the great composers of music history, striving to unite the hearts of Mexico to the world through the music. He was a pioneer in a time when it was unbelievable to hear an adaptation by Zeferino of the ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’ by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on traditional Mexican marimba, or to hear the masterful way he played contemporary music, such as when he premiered the Darius Milhaud “Marimba Concerto” in Mexico and when he inspired Carlos Chavez to compose ‘Tambuco.’

“For my father,” Javier said, “I imagine that entering the PAS Hall of Fame would have been an unexpected surprise, because he did not seek any of the acknowledgments he received; his gaze was always focused on creating—being and living by and for music, by and for the marimba. My mother remembers when he received the National Prize for Culture and Arts from the Mexican government. He smiled with the same innocence as a child receiving a big surprise. Today, almost seven years after his death, he can rejoice, because entering the PAS Hall of Fame not only represents the scope of his musical career, but it also represents the living legacy of the traditional Mexican marimba and the brother Central American countries, and the legacy of the Latin American marimba traditions.”

Zeferino Nandayapa was born August 26, 1931 in Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico. He started playing on a small marimba at age three, inspired by listening to his father, Norberto Nandayapa, a band director, clarinetist, and marimba maker. Norberto gave Zeferino his first music lessons, and he quickly proved to be adept at playing marimba. By age 11, Zeferino was playing in a children’s marimba group called Los Muchachitos, which was formed by his cousin, Germán Nandayapa, and who performed at popular festivals.

“Our group played at peasant parties and fiestas,” he recalled in an interview. “I was playing the harmony part, but because the marimba was so tall, I had to stand on a box to reach the keys.” Zeferino later became director of several marimba bands in Chiapas and Veracruz, and he also started learning other musical instruments.

In 1952, when Zeferino was 21 years old, he moved to Mexico City to attend the National Conservatory of music. “I had no intention of studying marimba, but rather to concentrate on composition and instrumentation,” he told Larry Kaptain in a 1990 Percussive Notes interview. “I didn’t think of being a marimbist, but rather a conductor or arranger/composer. I also studied piano, but since there were so few instruments to practice on, I used my marimba. As time went by, I realized I could play all of my piano music on the marimba. Suddenly, the works of Bach, Lizst, and Pagannini were accessible to me.”

In 1957 he was invited to tour the United States as a marimbist with a folkloric dance troupe. “The instrumentation was simply four marimbas,” he said. “The other marimbists were outstanding Chiapans: Gabriel Solis, Ariosto Lopez, and Armando Juárez. Aside from the Chiapan popular music, we played arrangements of Pagannini, Liszt, and others. The biggest surprise to the marimbists on the tour was that our group was the most popular part of the program. This inspired me to form my own group.”

While attending school in Mexico City, he became very popular as a recording session artist and guest musician at the national radio station XEW, performing on marimba, vibraphone, accordion, piano, trumpet, and alto saxophone. He also toured with Orquesta Tipica de la Ciudad de Mexico, directed by Maestro Miguel Lerdo de Tejada.

Zeferino founded the Marimba Nandayapa Ensemble to bring traditional Mexican marimba to the concert stage with a blend of Mexican and Latin-American folk music. “Soon after I formed the ensemble, the Mexican Secretary of State invited us to tour Central and South America,” he recalled. “Part of our reason to embark on this tour was to perform benefit concerts in Chile, where there had recently been an earthquake. Upon our return to Mexico we were invited to do a tour of the United States. We received a great deal of praise from the public, as well as from other musicians. We showed people the Chiapan custom of rote learning and memorization, because most players do not read music. This is because in Chiapas we lack schools for music training.

“All Chiapan music is played on the marimba because it is part of the people,” he explained. “If anyone hears a piece that they like, they transcribe it for the marimba, thus projecting the regional flavor of music in our region. There is nothing written for marimba; they are all parts for the piano.”

The group eventually traveled to over 50 countries in Europe, Asia, and the American continent, appearing at such international festivals and concert venues as the Cultural Olympic games in Münich, Germany (1972) and Montreal, Canada (1976); the Musical Youth International congress Zagreb, Croatia (1979); the Bregenz am Bodense music festival in Austria (1984); PASIC (1988 and 1995); Expo 92 in Seville, Spain; the Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany and the UNESCO Cinema hall in Paris, France (1992); the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (1993); Omiya Sonic City Hall in Japan (1996); The Schleswig-Holstein Music festival in Germany (2000); The Purcell Room in London, England (2001); the “Black Diamond” of the National Library in Copenhagen, Denmark (2007); and the Marimba 2010 International Festival and Conference in Minneapolis (2010); among others. Between 1990 and 2008 they toured extensively in Japan, the U.S., and Denmark.

Marimba Nandayapa is the only Mexican marimba group that has performed twice at Carnegie Hall in New York (1973 and 1976). They are also unique in teaching Mexican marimba in several music conservatories and universities in the U.S., Japan, Europe, and Latin-America. In addition, the group has made over 70 recordings, including classical transcriptions for marimba ensemble, traditional Mexican music, and pop hits. As a recording session musician, Zeferino participated in numerous recordings with several famous Mexican artists.

In addition to his work with Marimba Nandayapa, Zeferino played with all of the major symphony orchestras in Mexico, performing works that were written and dedicated to him, as well as his own compositions and arrangements. In 1977 he gave the Mexican premiere of Darius Milhaud’s “Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone and Orchestra” with the UNAM Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1989 he was soloist with the Royal Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Eduardo Mata at the Royal Festival Hall in London, England, and in 2000 with the Madrid Community Orchestra at the Madrid Municipal Theater and at the Fine Arts Palace in Mexico City.

In the mid-1960s, Zeferino was hired to play marimba for a production of Carlos Chávez’s ballet Caballos de vapor, sinfonía de baile (Horse-Power: Ballet Symphony, sometimes simply referred to as H.P.), which Chávez conducted. “During the rehearsals, I warmed up with scales and even played Mozart transcriptions,” Zeferino told Percussive Notes. “Chávez was very surprised to hear this type of music played on the marimba. After one rehearsal, he brought a tape recorder and asked me to play with two and four mallets. He was also curious about the various ranges of marimbas. Some months later, I learned that Chávez wrote a percussion ensemble work called ‘Tambuco.’ He asked me and several members of my group to rehearse this new piece. Chávez had written a very difficult marimba part that employed notes in the highest and lowest registers at a very rapid pace. It was impossible to play, and I told him that. He then proceeded to modify it to its present form. Our group performed it at a conference given by Chávez, and it was very well-received.”

In 1983, the governor of Chiapas commissioned Chaipan composer Alvarez del Toro to write a concerto for marimba and orchestra. “We soon had a meeting,” Zeferino said, “and he expressed his curiosity on how to begin writing for the marimba. I gave him copies of scores of works by Chávez and Kuri Aldana, and he analyzed them. We then had another meeting during which I played for him. He was so impressed by the lower register of the instrument that we had to schedule a third meeting. He was quite taken by the sonority of the tela [membrane] of the lowest pitches, and he used the low register extensively in the second and third movements of the concerto.” [Note: On a traditional Mexican marimba, the bottom of each resonator is covered by a thin layer of pig intestine, which gives the instrument its characteristic sound.]

The resulting concerto, “El Espiritu de la Tierra,” was premiered in 1984 at the annual State of the State address given by the governor of Chiapas. “In the process of the first rehearsals, the composer gave me the liberty of making adjustments in the solo part,” Zeferino said. “Therefore, in the folkloric sections that depict dances of the Lacandon Indians, I improvised on the dance rhythms.”

The piece also included the use of electronic tape. “Alvarez del Toro knew of a ranch in Chiapas [that had] a cave with long stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The composer brought a tape recorder, and I played on these stalactites with my marimba mallets. These sounds would be played on the tape during performances of the piece, [along with] spoken voices of indigenous peoples from Chiapas. To me, [the piece] is an honest representation of the culture of the Lacandon jungle.”

Zeferino was recognized with numerous awards both nationally and internationally, including the Golden Tumi in Lima, Perú (1959), the Peace Medal award from the United Nations Organization (1977), the Lira de Oro presented by the SUTM Musicians Union (1979), the Chiapas Prize in music (1990), and the European Excellence Award in Paris, France (1992). In 1996 he received the National Arts Award in Mexico—the highest prize for Mexican artists—presented by Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo. In 2004, he received a prize from the Belgian percussion society, and in 2009 he became an Emeritus Creator of the National System of Art Creators from Mexico.

Zeferino Nandayapa died on December 28, 2010. The day after his death, he received a public tribute from the governor of Chiapas and his death was reported extensively on social media around the world. In 2011, he received several “post-mortem” recognitions, including a National Homage at the Fine Arts Palace in Mexico City, having the marimba museum of Tuxtla Gutierrez named in his honor, and having two busts and one statue erected in Mexico City, Tuxtla Gutierrez, and Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas.

Zeferino’s legacy continues. The Marimba Nandayapa Ensemble includes Zeferino’s three sons—Javier, Oscar, and Norberto Nandayapa—and two musicians from the marimba tradition from Chiapas: Sandra Moreno and Eduardo Hernandez. They have performed in several concert venues and international festivals in Mexico, and as soloists with the most important Mexican symphony orchestras. They recorded part of the soundtrack for the film Coco, produced by Pixar animation studios in 2017.

This year marks the 61st anniversary of Marimba Nandayapa, without a doubt, Mexico’s most important group of its kind and one of the most recognized marimba ensembles of the world.

“My brother Oscar, who is the oldest,” said Javier, “remembers something my father said: ‘Marimba is like my second wife.’ Then my mother said, ‘The second? Marimba is his first wife; I’m the second!’ At our home, we all grew up to the sound of the marimba. My father played her, my mother always danced to marimba music, and we always listened to our father’s voice through the marimba. Oscar says the marimba expressed the voice of our father’s heart. The great Mexican composer Agustin Lara told him once, ‘Zeferino, to you who play everything, never play the door of oblivion.’ We will remember him thus: by playing. This recognition crowns the permanence of his musical presence between us.”

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