Have you ever been so inspired by something, you stopped what you were doing and began a quest to learn everything you could about it? Joel Laviolette has.
How It Started
Almost 20 years ago, Joel was traveling through New Mexico when he heard the music of the mbira. The instrument is indigenous to Africa and, after listening, Joel wanted to learn everything about it.
Traveling across North America, Joel did exactly that. When our fair continent could no longer provide new knowledge, he went to the source of another African instrument, the marimba. Over the course of several trips to Zimbabwe, Joel stayed with master musicians and continued his education.
He made his way to Austin six years ago and started a band named Joel Laviolette and Rattletree. He also started a marimba school named The Rattletree School of Marimba. He runs the school with his business partner, marimba-student-turned-teacher Rakefet Avramovitz.
Rattletree School of Marimba
The school is designed to teach students marimba. I know you’re still scratching your collective noggins, asking, “But Dave, what is marimba?” Easy, marimbas are basically Zimbabwean xylophones of different sizes and pitch. The biggest difference is, while xylophones are traditionally made of metal, marimbas are made of wood.
The different marimba sizes are pitched similarl to the way vocal ranges are. The school has a soprano, bass, and several tenor marimbas. The bass marimba is as tall as my collarbone, and I am 6’1″.
Rattletree also teaches students how to play the mbira and its music. The mbira is an instrument I’ve never seen before, though I have seen my mom play a melodica. The mbira is played inside a large cut gourd called a deze, which amplifies the sound. Inside are metal keys that the player plucks with their two thumbs and forefingers. Each digit plays its own melody. As the melodies come together, they create a spider’s web of music. It’s mind blowing.
The school is open six days a week and classes are always available. Like many of the subjects of my recent articles, The Rattletree School of Marimba works closely with Austin’s School for the Blind. Rakefet told me, “I think the students enjoy marimba so much because they can feel the resonance of the music. One student in particular is so excited about it, he wants to play it professionally.”
Austin Meets Zimbabwe
I can relate. On February 22nd, Joel Laviolette and Rattletree held a concert at the school, located in a humble industrial complex at 2311 Thorton Rd. Rakefet debuted her all-female marimba band called SeVana Marimba. This is a more traditional marimba band compared to Rattletree, which mixes in a drum kit and electronic music.
The concert was the epitome of good vibes. There is music that makes you happy, and then there is happy music. Happy music, by its very nature, is incapable of being anything but positive.
Throughout the night, as I saw SeVana Marimba and Rattletree perform, I sensed no negativity. People left their worries at the door and danced about, clapping to energetic music as the members of SeVana swayed together playing marimbas. The music transcended our auditory receptors and worked its way into the fabric of our beings. The joyful music worked its way into the floor, the wall, the ceiling and our bodies. It resonated positivity.
Joel and Rattletree played songs from their new album, traditional marimba music and a few mbira tunes as well. Always the teacher, Joel explained certain aspects of the music to the audience. By doing that, I was able to leave the event with a fuller knowledge of not only marimba music, but music as a whole.
Regardless of how, marimba music must be experienced. Rattletree School of Marimba offers plenty of learning opportunities for students of all ages. Joel Laviolette and Rattletree and SeVana Marimba offer an experience that leaves students and audiences with smiles and happy hearts.
The Rattletree School of Marimba is located at 2311 Thorton Rd. Unit K. You can call them at 512-417.2041.
What’s your happy music?