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Our story with the traditional and concert marimbas

Oscar Javier Biolley Santamaría:  "The Biolley marimbas began with a dream of mine long ago, as ever since I was little, I had an immense desire to build my own traditional marimba.  I have been involved in the world of woods my entire life, and I have a particular affinity for, and expertise of the woods of Costa Rica.  Nineteen years ago I finally was able to bring my dream to fruition, after building my first instrument, and along with my three sons, we performed in many places in Costa Rica given the love we all had for that instrument.

 I named that marimba Matilde in honor of my wife, who is an artist and painter.  She was in charge of decorating it with two paintings allegoric to our beautiful city of Cartago and today, it remains in the exact same condition as when we built it.

My youngest son, also named Oscar [Oscar Biolley Quesada], has, like me, a special passion for the marimba, and also a great deal of knowledge about tropical woods.  Oscar has always had an immense curiosity about how things work, and as a result of that, he entered the engineering program at the university and has been the go-to person when it comes to elements of design, precision and tuning for the marimbas we build.

In the year 2008, Oscar spent 4 months as an apprentice to Mr. Miguel Torres Rosales, one of the great exponents of the traditional Costa Rican marimba and a man who is very dear to our family.  In that same year, we built our very first commercially-available traditional marimba and started our journey in that area of construction.  Since that time, we have built marimbas for many of the most important artistic entities of Costa Rica, amongst them: the Music School of Paraíso in Cartago, the Municipalities of Escazú and Carrillo, 10 Professional Technical Institutes in Guanacaste, and others for individual marimba players in the country.

Oscar Biolley Santamaría (right) with Mr. Miguel Torres,          one of the pioneers of the Costa Rican marimba

We are very proud to say that we already have marimbas placed in the North American market, as University of Minnesota professor Fernando Meza, as well as one of his students (Bradford Olson) already have 5-octave instruments of our making.  In August of this year (2016) we will also be sending a hand-carved traditional marimba to the University of Minnesota, an instrument that is being made to the taste and specifications of Prof. Meza, someone with whom we have a very close relationship since 2011.  In November, we will be introducing our instruments for the first time at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Indianapolis, Indiana, something which is a great honor for us, as the best instruments from around the world are presented there each year.

From that first dream I had of building a marimba until today, each day has been a blessing for me.  Being able to create something that represents the beauty of my country and listening to that creation in the hands of talented marimba artists is something that is truly special.  And on top of that, being able to do all of this along with my own son, is simply priceless!"

Oscar Biolley Quesada:  "Our story of building concert marimbas began in June of 2011, after I was  asked to make a replacement bar (low C) for a 5-octave instrument at the National Institute of Music of Costa Rica.  When I went to deliver the bar, I knocked on the door of the percussion studio, not knowing at the time that Fernando Meza, one of the most important percussionists from Costa Rica and chair of the percussion department in the School of Music at the University of Minnesota was there, giving a master class for the students at the Institute.  At that time, I did not know him and I certainly did not expect to speak with him.  Much less did I expect that down the road he would become an integral part of my family's life.

​The students in the class asked Mr. Meza if he would be OK taking a break so they could try out the bar that I was bringing.  He agreed and they introduced us.  After speaking for a few minutes, I gave him the bar and then he asked me if I could give him the one I had made as a replacement.  Not understanding too well, because his question was very confusing to me, I repeated to him that the bar I had just given him was the one I had made .  He was very surprised, as he thought the bar I had handed him was the original one and not the one I had made!  He told me that he saw it and felt it exactly as an original one (which made me feel really good, as I had taken a lot of care in the making of that bar).  However, what happened later was a life lesson for me and a moment that changed my entire concept of the world of the marimba.  Mr. Meza proceeded to try out the bar by hitting it with his finger next to his ear and, judging by his facial expressions, everything seemed to be OK with regards to its sound and intonation.  But to my surprise, once the bar was threaded with the cord and suspended with the rest of the keyboard over the marimba, and once it was struck with the proper mallet, all those expressions turned very different and they seemed to say that he was no longer satisfied with anything about that bar.  (I also heard the sound of that bar at that point, and it did not sound right to me either, but I couldn't put my finger on why it did not).  After trying to adjust the resonators (the metal tubes under the keyboard that act as a resonating chamber for the bar), and without achieving any kind of positive result, he told me that although he was not an expert in the field of acoustics, that he did know a few things, and that he thought the bar did not sound as it should, because most likely the harmonics were not properly aligned.  And then he asked me of course the key question: “How did you align the harmonics on this bar?”  At that time, I was not really even aware of the word “harmonics” so obviously, my answer was not very profound!  What I had done with that bar, was exactly the same process I had always done for the bars of the traditional marimba.  His answer to what I said (which I can still remember today!) was a simple “Hmm…”  Following that, Mr. Meza proceeded to give a short lecture/demonstration at the piano, of how the harmonic series works.  I have to admit that at the time, I felt completely inadequate about how little knowledge I had of that field, but as strange as it might sound, I was equally as excited.  In all of my previous experiences building traditional marimbas, I had never had to worry about aligning harmonics or think about “partials” in the harmonic series, etc.  However, as an engineering student I am always interested in learning about how the world around me works, and I was happy to find out about a new field of knowledge that would help me open the door to learn how to better build these beautiful instruments.

The world of the traditional marimba and that of the concert marimba are not the same when it comes to the building or tuning of the instruments… not even close!  At that time, I thought they were the same, simply because my father and I had only dealt with the building of traditional instruments and we had not crossed into the world of the concert marimba.  However, and as I came to discover, both fields are truly different.  But once we made that discovery, and with the love and passion that my family has for the marimba, as well as the experience we had in building traditional instruments, we were ready to learn everything about the concert instruments, and here is where my running into Mr. Meza was such an incredible blessing, because even when we had just met for about 30 minutes, he made me an offer that day that was really surprising.  He told me that he would like to bring me to Chicago, so I could spend some time with Mr. Gilberto Serna, whom Meza considered the final authority on the subject of tuning of mallet percussion instruments.  If Mr. Serna was willing to teach me the “secrets” (and of course, at that time Mr. Meza did not know whether Mr. Serna would agree or not), he told me that this opportunity would be very unique and that it had the possibility to really change my life.  Mr. Meza told me he would call me after returning to Minneapolis and after he had had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Serna.  I have to admit that I never expected for him to call me, but nonetheless, a couple of weeks later, I received a call from him.  I was of course very happily surprised, because he told me that after speaking with Mr. Serna, he had agreed to teach me about the tuning of the mallet percussion instruments.  He also told me that this was a unique opportunity, especially because Mr. Serna had not shared this information with hardly anyone before and he made me promise him (as a show of respect to Mr. Serna for his willingness to teach me), that I would not share that information with anyone and that I would only use it in my own process of tuning.  I obviously agreed and will always honor that promise.  We had a few more conversations and decided to plan my trip to the USA at the end of November of 2011.  My trip would include a week with Fernando’s family in Minneapolis, where I would have the opportunity to see and listen to all of the concert instruments housed at the University of Minnesota, as well as those from other schools and professional orchestras in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and after that week, several days in Chicago, where I could spend time with Mr. Serna asking him all the questions I had about tuning bars and acoustic adjustments for mallet instruments.

          Fernando Meza, Gilberto Serna, and Oscar Biolley

     playing on a  "World's Fair" model marimba by Deagan

Oscar Biolley trying out a "King George" marimba

at Century Mallet Service in Chicago

​My trip was full of anticipation…  I, as well as my entire family, was very excited to finally be able to get answers to the many questions I had since my meeting with Mr. Meza earlier in June.  My original list of questions only grew longer during the week prior to Chicago, because along with him, we would sit for hours in Minneapolis to discuss different issues related to the tuning of marimbas and during those conversations, other questions would arise.  Suffice it to say that when we arrived in Chicago, that list was very long!

​When I finally had the honor of meeting Mr. Gilberto Serna, I immediately felt an affinity with him.  He is originally from Colombia, and as such, speaks Spanish fluently.  Perhaps that helped to establish a special connection between us, because when I met him, I felt as though I already knew him from long before.  Gilberto is truly a special person and has such knowledge about the history of acoustics in the world of percussion, that he is like a walking encyclopedia!  Even though he has now retired from his job at Century Mallet Instrument Service, when we met, he was still in charge of every aspect of the business, from the day to day operations, to the part he loved the most, which was the rolling up of his sleeves to work in tuning and repairing marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, glockenspiels, etc.  At that time, he had the most amazing collection of vintage Deagan instruments, precisely in the same building where John Calhoun Deagan worked, one of the most important names in the history of building and innovation of percussion instruments.  Just entering that building made me feel as though I was walking into an important part of music history, much more so then, when I got to meet the great Gilberto Serna, who was taught by Deagan’s principal tuner!  For me it was a true privilege and honor and of course, I will never be able to repay him for all that he taught me.  He is truly an extraordinary individual in every sense of the word and I only hope that the attention I have put, and will continue to put, into the tuning of our instruments at OBiolley Instrumentos Musicales, will honor his incredible legacy.”

 Oscar Biolley with Gilberto Serna

at Century Mallet Service in Chicago

The Deagan building, home of Century Mallet Service,

where Gilberto Serna used to work.

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