• Homer musician feeds off flow of energy between performer and audience
By Christina Whiting
Kirk Olsen has been drawn to melody and rhythm his entire life. As a youth, he played trumpet in band and cello in the orchestra. But it wasn’t until he moved to Homer in 1979 as an adult that he began to weave music into his daily life. Today, he plays acoustic finger-style guitar, including Hawaiian slack key guitar, as well as hand drums and marimba.
In addition to playing, Olsen also enjoys performing.
“The hours and days of preparation and practice culminate in an experience that’s so fulfilling,” he said. “There’s a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that money can’t buy; a flow of energy back and forth between performer and audience. It’s as new as the present moment and as ancient as humans gathering around a fire.”
Olsen values the process of selecting or composing a song and bringing it up to performance level. He likes that doing so draws on both left and right brain skills, merging technical aspects with intuitive ones.
Olsen has appeared in plays at Pier One Theatre, as well as local musical comedy shows like Sally Oberstein’s “Old Songs and Chapstick” and “Old Songs and Duct Tape.” He has also performed in “World Café,” “Out of the Woodwork” and “Stepping Out,” Homer Council on the Art’s community talent shows.
During this year’s “Stepping Out” performance, participants were encouraged to step out of their artistic comfort zones. Olsen provided vocal accompaniment for a dance performance, performed a solo act and sang in silhouette in a makeshift shower. He also played guitar styles that were new to him, including the fast-strumming style of Ellis Paul and the rhythm chords style of Florence and the Machine.
Of all the instruments he plays, Olsen said his favorite is the marimba. The African percussion instrument is one he first encountered during a workshop in Homer in the early 1990s.
Marimbas resemble gigantic xylophones and have wooden keys played with mallets. Resonators amplify the notes, similar to organ pipes. A typical marimba ensemble spans five octaves, including bass, baritone, tenor and soprano. Hoshos (shakers) keep the precise rhythm, and drums are often used as well. Players change instruments for almost every song, so that all musicians play all of the instruments.
There are currently three active marimba groups in Homer: Tamba Hadzi, Shamwari and Williwaw. At one time, there were four groups, including an all-youth group.
“It is very unusual for a town this size to have this many bands,” Olsen said. “A city like Portland might only have one or two, but Homer was wide open to this music.”
Homer’s original marimba band was juJuba. Olsen and his wife Lisa helped launch the second group.
Olsen said he believes Zimbabwean music has spread so far around the world because it is rich and compelling — and people are just drawn to it.
“It’s joyful and healing and satisfies a need for connection and authenticity,” he said. “For the people of Zimbabwe, it’s ancient and spiritual and connects them to their ancestors.”
Olsen also attributes its popularity to the accessibility of the instrument.
“There’s no sheet music with marimba,” he said. “It’s learned by ear and based on a series of repeating patterns — like 12-bar blues. A new player can sound good at a basic level on day one, yet in time, there’s no limit to its depth and complexity.”
Olsen and his wife play with Williwaw, and have worked intensely with a group of young players through the years. Now these young players are high school juniors and a vital part of Williwaw’s 10-member ensemble.
“It’s been totally rewarding to watch these kids grow from new players to confident, skilled and accomplished young adults,” Olsen said. “They’ve soaked up this music and its rhythms, and it’s been so fun to share that with audiences.”
Olsen and other local marimba players attend out-of-state workshops and festivals, like “Zimfest,” as often as possible. Williwaw regularly performs at local venues, including the Homer Farmers Market, Concert on the Lawn and the Ninilchik Fair. The group also performs during Marimba Madness, Homer’s annual celebration of Zimbabwean music that features all three Homer marimba bands.
When he is not playing or performing, Olsen is thinking about new songs for marimba, guitar — or both. He said one of his goals is to find more time for music. For now, however, he is content to practice, play and perform.
“Whatever our day job, the arts allow us to experience wholeness and tap into something much bigger than ourselves,” he said. “This community really values art and that’s an important part of why my wife and I choose to live here.”
Enjoy Olsen’s passion for marimba during Marimba Madness on Saturday, Mar. 1, 6 p.m. at the Elks Lodge. Tickets are available through Homer Council on the Arts and at The Homer Bookstore. For more information, call 235-4288 or visit homerart.org.
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