Imagine what the sunlight, as it dances across a still, pristine landscape, would sound like. Would it sound otherworldly? Cheerful? Liberating? For me, it would be reminiscent of a xylophone, only brighter, somewhat higher pitched, sweet and melodious. Perhaps you have even already heard such sound as a ringtone on your cell phone. Who knows?
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I’m talking about the kalimba. The first time people see such an instrument, they are not likely to believe that it can create the sounds that it does. Sometimes referred to as the “thumb piano,” it is simply a wooden board with metal tines attached to the board via a grounding bar that functions as a sort of bridge.
A tounged instrument
The tines are what categorizes the instrument as a “tongued instrument” or lamellophone though it is also an idiophone since it produces sound when the tines are plucked. The kalimba is actually a more modern version of a traditional African instrument known as the mbira, and its origins are somewhat ambiguous.
Origins of the kalimba
Historical records have shown lamellophones being made and played throughout the entire continent for thousands of years. In each country, the instruments have different names. The most specific history about the mbira shows it came from central and southern Africa around 1000 to 700 A.D.
Kevin Spears is a collector of these old instruments. He has an impressive amount of old kalimbas and mbiras on his website.
Mbira vs Kalimba
What distinguishes the kalimba from its “parent,” the mbira, is that the mbira is housed within a large gourd. Metal coin-like objects or shells may be used to decorate the edge of the gourd to give a rattle-like sound when the inner “thumb piano” is plucked.
The mbira can also be more elaborately decorated since it is possible to cover the outer portion of the gourd with art without the overall display being too distracting.
Tuning of both instruments largely varies with the kalimba being set to the “do-re-mi” scale while the mbira is set to more traditional African scales that are particular to the place it came from or the person playing the instrument. In Zimbabwe, the mbira was an important instrument used to induce a mystic trance in seance-like ceremonies as well as during storytelling.
Is the kalimba difficult to learn?
The kalimba is considered one of the easiest musical instruments to learn; however, there are also techniques that distinguish a novice from the master player. Since the tines on the instrument are arranged in an octave or higher range of notes, mastery requires an understanding of sheet music.
Kalimbas are available in many different scales
There is even musical tablature written specifically for the kalimba. Choosing the right kalimba according to one’s level of expertise is key. The most basic form is a 6-note pentatonic kalimba. New musicians with a fair grasp of music yet have never touched the kalimba often opt for a two-octave alto.
For experts, usually, only the original versions of Hugh Tracey kalimbas which are diatonic (alto or treble) or chromatic kalimbas will do. In chromatic kalimbas, there are tines on both sides of the board both of which are played simultaneously!
There are also many things that can affect the sound produced by the kalimba. These include the size of the board, whether there are holes on the board and the number of holes, as well as the density of the wood used. When a sound is produced by plucking the tines (usually with the thumb) a longitudinal sound wave is created which bounces onto and off the soundboard.
A larger board with proportionally larger tines will produce a lower sound. Holes in the instrument can be covered and uncovered with the fingers creating a vibrato effect. The denser the wooden material used to make the board, the less resonance the sound has. Tuning can also be adjusted by moving the metal tines a certain length through the grounding bar/bridge thereby extending or shortening their length.
The kalimbas move to the West
Despite its dulcet melody and beautiful song, the kalimba was not heard of outside Africa and the Caribbean until about fifty years ago. All of this was to change when English ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey was exploring then-Rhodesia Zimbabwe and fell in love with the kalimba’s sound.
He recorded several songs played by locals on the instrument and later founded the International Library of African Music in 1954 to archive this music.
He also established the African Musical Instruments (AMI) community with which he made and exported several kalimbas to Europe and America. Tracey and the AMI also taught people how to construct high-quality kalimbas.
Fascinatingly, Tracey’s sons Andrew and Paul also shared a love for the African instrument their father dedicated years of his life to. In 1962, the two became involved in the arrangement of a musical revue known as “Wait a Minim!” which featured on Broadway for almost a decade. During this time, many more people from all over the world came to know about and cherish the kalimba.
Today, it is common to see the terms “kalimba” and “mbira” used interchangeably. Many artists have risen to fame by playing one or both of these instruments, especially in pop music and in conjunction with other instruments as well as vocals.
One such artist is Njacko Backo, a Cameroonian singer who plays the kalimba with his band “Kalimba Kalimba” in Ontario, Canada. The band is known for its pan-African urban music and even has records sold on Apple iTunes.
Alexio Kawara, a music artist from Zimbabwe, is an Afro-fusion musician, a lead member of Shades of Black, and a legend who espoused the popularity of the mbira in his work.
The kalimba in pop culture
Due to its spacey, ethereal sound, the kalimba is perceived by many people as a great way of creating an atmosphere of mystery. For this reason, it was used by James Horner as part of the soundtrack of Aliens, a popular science fiction, action, and horror movie that filmed in 1986. It was also used by Eivor Palsdottir, a folk music, rock, and fusion singer from the Faroe Islands in her song “Monster,” a song of self-introspection, enchantment, and the monster within.
The kalimba in the age of the internet
The kalimba is a seemingly simple instrument which can be used to play some of the most complex music. Following its popularity across the globe, millions of people have at least come across the instrument.
Hundreds have recorded covers of famous songs and created their own music using the kalimba to be shared on YouTube and social media. Whether there will continue to be artists who rise to fame by playing the kalimba is uncertain. What remains clear is that this instrument, and the sound it makes, continues to inspire musical talents and mystical dreams.