Israeli marimba master brings good vibes to festival

Israeli musician Chen Zimbalista is a master of the marimba. To keep it that way, he has to practice. And practice and practice.

“Arthur Rubinstein once said that on the first day he doesn’t practice, he feels it,” recounted Zimbalista from his Tel Aviv studio. “The second day, his dog feels it. On the third day, his audience feels it. So I do a lot of technique. You have to practice like crazy.”

Zimbalista is one of the marquee artists performing at this year’s Jewish Music Festival, which takes place at a variety of sites. He will be in town for a March 27 concert at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, as well as a show at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Pianist Jose Gallardo and East Bay percussionist Katja Cooper will join him for the festival’s concert in Berkeley.

Trained in classical music, Zimbalista performs marimba versions of everything from a Bach violin concerto and a Gershwin fantasia to a challenging Steve Reich opus — then effortlessly switches to Arab and sub-Saharan African folk styles.

“I also play dumbek,” he said, referring to the popular Arab drum. “I had a teacher in an Arab village in northern Israel. He taught me the traditional way of playing. But I was searching for different sounds, playing on different sides of the drums.”

Given his mastery of classical music, Zimbalista has been a frequent guest soloist with orchestras in Israel and abroad. He also has traveled to Angola, where he performed with local marimba masters in the refugee camps near the capital city of Luanda.

“I want this contact with the audience. I want to make people happy.”

Zimbalista made his debut at age 12, when he played the triangle in an Israel Philharmonic concert. That led to formal classical percussion studies in Israel and New York. He plays 40 percussion instruments, including vibraphone and castanets. But once he discovered the warm tones of the marimba, he found his instrument of choice.

Zimbalista also serves as the artistic director of both the Science and Music Festival at Israel’s Weizmann Institute and Tam Tam, Israel’s annual percussion festival.

Not lost amid the Bach cadenzas and Arabic flourishes is Zimbalista’s love of Jewish music. He often reworks classic Jewish folk or liturgical pieces for marimba. While touring Russia last Chanukah, he performed the Shabbat standard “Shalom Aleichem” in the Kremlin.

Zimbalista rarely performs classic Jewish tunes like that in Israel. He says audiences there don’t seem to want or need them.

Officially, Zimbalista lives in Tel Aviv, but a more apt permanent address might be an aisle seat on an international flight. “It’s hard because you fly like crazy,” he said. “But I’m very busy, thank God. And I like to fly.”

Chen Zimbalista and Friends perform at the 23rd Jewish Music Festival, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 27 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $20-$24. Information: (800) 838-3006 or He will also perform 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 31 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Tickets: $17-$20. Information: (415) 751-2535.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.