Orphy Robinson - Vibes

“I started out in a marching band which doubled as a carnival band,” says Orphy Robinson. “We played the tuned percussion – marimbas and xylophones on the side. It was the kind of band you might see at American football matches with all the razzamatazz but without the nice girls cheerleading which was a shame. We practised at least three times a week and went to competitions on the weekends.”

Robinson stood out, sometimes coming away with the top soloist prize. The sheer size of the xylophone attracted him. “They looked quite interesting and I’d always wanted to play piano and drums and it was a marrying of the two really.” But he could easily have embarked on a different career as he was looking to study law and had already completed his foundation studies but just one phone call changed the way he saw his life unfolding.

“I got a call from Courtney Pine who asked me whether I’d like to perform with the Jazz Warriors. I must have done something right, because immediately after the performance he said: ‘I want you to join my band and make it up to a sextet’. Then I was off gigging and working and from there on it’s been music all the way. Sometimes I look back and think that it might have been great to go off to one of the music schools but I was learning on the job, so it just seemed to make more sense to take the route that I was going. I was also getting quite a lot of session work.”

Although Robinson had played Viscount and Premier percussion in the marching band “neither had the right feel,” he says. “There was something that wasn’t happening for me there.” His first set of personal vibes were Trixon which he says he still has. “They were set up at the foot of my bed so I used to get up every morning and play. I’d use teaspoons which were great for speed and I would jam along doing solos over the BBC test card. Those vibes had a wonderful sound, lovely notes but the frame was absolutely crap. I remember constantly having to repair this thing but I learned heaps on it.”

Later in his career Robinson approached Premier about getting a set of vibes. “They said no, because I wasn’t being seen on Top of the Pops. That really confirmed my earlier suspicions. So I got in touch with Sonor, who immediately flew me over to Germany and made a set for me and gave me a full endorsement.” Sonor subsequently gave Robinson a second set. “They go down to low E. Then at the top I have two extra notes – a C sharp and a D. It’s probably the only one of its kind in the world. It has a good sound and it’s a real workhorse, they called it a VB500.”

Robinson says he’s looking for a “body of sound” in his vibes. “Some sound really tinny and very clunky and they just don’t work. You need a set of vibes that are warm and that you can play with. We use so many different kinds of mallets and these contribute greatly to the sound that I’m looking for. A good set of mallets combined with a good set of vibes allows you to bring character to the overall sound. On some of the other vibes I’ve found that you just sound like everybody else and I’m not into that at all.”

Robinson also plays the marimba. “I love playing marimba,” he enthuses, “and I was very fortunate to start on a concert grand Musser, a beautiful instrument that I still have at home. I also have a small half size Viscount. But my baby is my Sonor Marimba. The Sonor is more geared to improv and the contemporary classical area – it’s more gentle. The Musser is more bebop and jazz-orientated. They both have rosewood keys, but they have different bodies and therefore different sounds. I also have a marimbula, which you sit down to play. It’s like a giant kalimba, a tuneable bass marimba which you play with your fingers and you can get some really deep sounds.”

Aside from the marimbula, mallets are clearly a key to the sound palette. “Mallets are covered with either hard, medium or soft yarns depending on the sounds that you wish to create,” he says.

“I only use rattan handles because they are so flexible and the Vic Firth M186s are perfect. They are quite heavy on the hand, but give a lovely warm sound. I also use the Terry Gibbs M34s and M32s depending on what sound is required. And sometimes I’ll use Vic Firth M25s which is a lovely stick and also the Victor Mendoza mallets – M23s – which are really nice as well. I’ve tried others, but I don’t really get on with them. I used to use a Premier 589 stick which was very cheap and absolutely fantastic – in fact Evelyn Glennie used to use them but they would last about five minutes with me. I’d end up super glueing the heads and they’d just come off after a couple of plays so I’ve stuck with Vic Firth.

“You know I almost forgot to mention the steel pans”, says Robinson. “I have a regular one that is tuned in fourths and fifths and a ‘one-off’ Aubrey Pan, tuned in semi-tones with some extra notes which was made especially for me. I put it through effects pedals and a Looperlative loop machine, which creates some amazing sounds and patterns – you’ll have to come and catch one of my solo shows.”

Interview - David Gallant