Classical musicians have long been wary of traveling abroad with instruments made from rare materials – especially rosewood, a “tonewood” used in many instruments including cellos, clarinets, and guitars. The trade of rosewood has long been regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but new regulations passed in 2016 have tightened restrictions even more, requiring extensive permits and examinations when traveling with instruments containing rosewood.
Most musical instruments contain less than 20 pounds of regulated rosewood, but this is still enough to worry traveling musicians, whose instruments might be confiscated to ensure that their rosewood tuning pegs were not obtained through illegal means. The musicians hit the hardest by these regulations: marimbists.
Marimba bars, the sound-producing portion of the instrument, are made entirely out of Honduran rosewood, usually exceeding 20 pounds of the material. This poses a problem for marimba soloists traveling abroad with their own instruments and orchestras and wind ensembles traveling with percussion equipment. Stories have been told in the percussion community of famous marimbists being detained in foreign countries due to their marimba bars being confiscated for periods of time, if the confiscation was for conservational or more subversive objectives we do not know. Because large percussion manufacturers are located all over the world, finding a marimba in a major city is not hugely difficult. However, since marimbas are not standardized in length, range, and height, finding a replica of your own instrument is still a challenge, making traveling with a personal instrument necessary in many instances.
The scarcity of rosewood has been of major concern for marimbists and marimba manufacturers for decades. This is not only because of CITES restrictions, but because of the decreasing sustainability of the material as it becomes more endangered due to worldwide demand for rosewood furniture and other goods. The difficulty in moving rosewood, raw and as a finished product, has raised questions in the percussion community about the continuing use of rosewood as the primary material for marimba bars.
Percussionists agree that rosewood is the ideal material for creating the round tone quality of marimba bars, but understand that scarcity is a growing concern. While many marimba manufacturers are experimenting with different materials in attempts to replicate rosewood’s attractive features, alternatives can only get so close. One solution in the attempt to cut down on the use of rosewood has been to encourage high schools and outdoor performing ensembles (including drum corps) to use marimba bars made from kelon, a synthetic plastic, or padouk, a denser and less resonant wood than rosewood. Since rosewood is a delicate material, keeping it out of loud and harsh performance situations helps prevent waste from broken rosewood bars. This is not a great solution for professionals, however, who rely on the warmth and resonance of rosewood in the concert hall.
Some professionals have called for percussion manufacturers to end the use of rosewood in auxiliary instruments, such as snare drums, castanets, snare drum sticks, and xylophone mallets. This has been seen as both a conservation effort and as a type of “instrument-elitism,” due to the subjectivity in deciding which percussion instruments should be considered worthy of the rare material. All can agree, however, that rosewood creates beautiful sounds and should be continued to be cultivated to produce high quality instruments and, in turn, high quality art.
While the music industry continues to look for solutions within CITES regulations, the percussion community continues to expand research on instrument development and awareness of global attitudes towards their favorite tonewood.
For more info:
* The Tree that Rocked the Music Industry (NPR)
* Regulations and links to permits (US Fish & Wildlife Service)
* Current CITES Listings of Affected Tree Species (US Fish & Wildlife Service)
* Music Industry Statement
* The Rosewood Racket (report by the Environmental Investigation Agency)
* CITES Report and Recommendations for Musical Instruments
Catherine Cole is a graduate student in percussion at the Eastman School of Music, who just finished an internship with WXXI through the Eastman Arts Leadership Program. You can watch her performances here online.