“A musician’s life is full of what Colombia and every other country needs: brotherhood, honesty, positive energy, and a vision of reality and the future,” says Baudillo Cuama. He has been on this path for a long time, a marimba virtuoso for 56 years, an instrument he can make by hand.

Cuama makes this traditional Pacific coast instrument with hand-selected wood and exports them throughout the country, Latin America, and abroad.

The marimba, along with Negro spirituals and chants, are key to the preservation of Afro-Colombian communities. UNESCO officially included the practice of marimba performance on its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Other Colombian practices recognized by UNESCO include the oral traditions of the Wayuu in Guajira, Carnaval de Barranquilla, the Cultural Space of Palenque de San Basilio, the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos in Pasto, and the Holy Week Processions in Popayán.

What initially began as 8-year-old child’s play would later lead Baudillo to the White House, where he built a marimba in front of an admiring President Obama. “You wouldn’t believe how much honour I felt to be a guest in Washington, D.C., but also the sense of  pride I had representing the music from my country. This was the motivation I needed to keep going,” says Baudillo, now 64.

He makes other traditional instruments too, such as the bombo, guasá, and cunono, heard in arrullo, currulao, and chiguala music. The Colombian Ministry of Culture, in collaboration with the United States Embassy, ensured that Cuama traveled to and was equipped with all of the materials he needed for the 2011 Smithsonian Folkway Festival Colombia: The Nature of Culture.

The festival celebrated Colombia’s biodiversity and culinary practices and highlighted the contributions of artists perpetuating intangible traditional customs: hair stylists, spoken-word and singing groups, craftsmen, and jewelry and textile makers. “I never thought that I would leave the country because of my making marimbas. My father’s lessons taught me well.”

A lifetime of dedication

Cuama listened to his African mother’s singing and his indigenous father’s marimba playing in his native Buenaventura near the banks of the Rasposo River in Valle del Cauca. As a 12-year-old zambo he “battled” in music festivals, displaying musical prowess and performance showmanship. Once after a battle, his father’s mangled marimba had to be returned home. Early training was a slightly perturbed father’s scolding gaze that led him, already a very precocious child, to further master the instrument by eye and recreate it by hand, quickly.

“I started playing the marimba very early as a child. You know, a child can really dedicate themselves to performance; their minds are clear and learning is “play.” I learned that before building a marimba you’ve got to know how to play it extremely well,” Baudillo chuckles.

The traditional marimba de chonta is made from chontadura, a wood from the palma de chonta. Half of national production comes from the Cauca Department. Among other things, this tree produces an orange-red fruit high in vitamin A and the fruit is said – yet not proven – to be an aphrodisiac.

This dark, hardwood Baudillo style first has to undergo a six-month curing process that includes drying the wood in a chimney structure. “Sometimes the customers have to wait because I only make the marimba with the materials for a 24-toned instrument and even before the six months drying, it must be cut at just the right time.”