Rubatano – Building Community Through Music

By Jack Penland

If you wander near the South Whidbey Community Center at the right time, you’ll hear a most unique kind of live music.  It’s not a performance, but students practicing the marimba.  Forced outside by the social distancing pandemic rules, students of Rubatano jam together and make joyful music.

Perhaps no other community center partner embodies the diversity of programs at the center like Rubatano, which teaches marimba to young and old, alike.


Moffett and her students practicing outside.

Dana Moffett oversees this happy school of music.  She says she had always loved percussion when, in 1994 in Seattle, she first heard a marimba band playing in a park and thought, “I have to find a way to play this music.”

Learning the music meant connecting with the larger marimba community and the Zimbabwean teachers that sometimes travel the U.S.  In 2003 Moffett started teaching the marimba.  She held classes in various locations around South Whidbey before moving into the community center.  She calls that move, “the best thing ever.”

Beyond simply teaching marimba, Moffett is also teaching the music from Zimbabwe.  She teaches via what she calls, “the old tradition.”  There is no sheet music.  The students learn by listening and playing.  The music is not like traditional Western music, but instead has a complex “polyrhythm” or cross-rhythms, created from layering multiple rhythms together.

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Pre-COVID practice in the Rubatano space in the center.

Typically, students play as an ensemble, each with a different part that contributes to the entirety of the song.  The students have to listen to each other, as well as play their own part.

But as students work out the notes, Moffett says they’re also, “building a community around the...passion of learning the music.”  “They bond as a family group,” she adds.

When COVID-19 cancelled in-person classes, she tried teaching via Zoom. But, she says that after a couple of months, “people were zoomed out.”


Sunshine and music!

When social restrictions were eased, Moffett pulled the marimbas out of the classroom and onto community center sidewalks.  Students were, “ready to come back and do something” says Moffett and that when they started playing together again, “it was very joyous.”
To get classes going again, she’s trying different time schedules and possibly organizing people by level of experience.  Also, as fall moves in and the weather turns wet, she plans to erect tents so that the music can continue.
Moffett looks forward to the day performances are again possible.  “It’s been hard for musicians,” not being able to perform and be part of the communities, she notes.  But someday that will change back, because as Moffett notes, “the world needs music.”
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