Recently, Keiko Abe combined her two greatest passions — love of the marimba and love of nature — in a unique project with the Special Olympics in Japan. The opportunity came when her friend Katsuko Nakamura purchased a huge farm in the rolling hills of the Maruyama Highlands in Kumamoto (in the center of Kyusu, Japan’s southernmost island). Nakamura’s purpose was to create an atmosphere and place where the mentally challenged could come to experience a more fulfilling life than in the isolated institutions where they lived. Here, out in nature, they could enjoy the fresh air, work with the soil, and plant flowers.
“I have dream,” Abe said to Nakamura, “to create a Marimba Village, where simple marimbas are placed out in the fields and among the trees, as if they grow there, up from the earth. And the people who happen to walk past these magical instruments might stop and play them. Perhaps someone on the next hillside will hear and be inspired to answer with music, perhaps the birds will answer and for a moment, each person will find musical inspiration and a close connection with nature.”
Nakamura, enthusiastic about this project, discussed Abe’s Marimba Village dream with many people in the nearby town of Yabe. Together, they agreed to help Abe realize her dream on the farm’s land. Also, the Yamaha Corporation donated the assistance of its engineers, who selected a particular native wood for the bars, designed these simple instruments, and helped local volunteers make them. The rustic marimbas — which had three to eight tone bars, no resonators, and mallets attached by cords — were built in a range of heights, some of which were wheelchair accessible. They were then installed in the surrounding hills, where their sound could be heard from one hill to another, and people might play musical responses to one another. This was music everyone could play and everyone could enjoy — improvised melodies on the marimba’s wooden bars — that most ancient of musical instruments.
At the Marimba Village opening ceremony, with the governor of Kumamoto and town council members in attendance, Abe was presented with the title “Honorable Mayor Of Marimba Village.” As Nakamura later described the rustic marimbas concert that day (played by Special Olympics athletes and volunteers), the 16 instruments installed on the hills created “gentle wooden sounds, echoing here and there, harmonizing with nature, and consoling our minds.”
“I am deeply touched to be named mayor of the Marimba Village,” Abe said, “I hope the marimbas here in this beautiful outdoor setting bring the simple joys of music, relaxation, and a connection with nature to everyone who visits.”
Wrote Nabue Tanaka, founder of the Tokyo branch of the Special Olympics, and close friend of Abe, “When we came to this spot the first time, we saw the seven colors of a rainbow stretching over the mountain — the promise of a good start. We arrived in the afternoon that day, and the rainbow remained until sunset.
“Now, with this success, everyone can come up to the mountain to farm, to grow flowers, and to play the marimba. It is good for refreshing one’s life. The five senses are important for a good life, and now we will provide that here for handicapped people.”