You might have heard about kalimba before, but there are still some things that might be new for you. Here, I will go through the most exciting facts you probably never realized about this incredible instrument.
The Instrument Is Rather Old
While kalimba is still a new instrument, and it’s less than a hundred years old, it originated from mbira which appeared between 3,000 and 1,300 years ago! Interestingly, the instrument was created in Africa, and it seems that it was invented twice.
The first type of mbira was created on the west coast of the continent over 3,000 years ago. However, a similar version appeared a little bit later in the Zambezi River valley. The basic principle of kalimba and mbira is the same, and kalimbas ancestor became quite popular across Africa.
The first contact with this instrument outside Africa was in the sixteenth century documented by Portuguese explorers. Later, both English and German explorers noticed the popularity of the instrument during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Different Versions Of The Instrument
Kalimba is not the only version of lamellophone that became popular and loved. Many tribes in Africa started making their own instruments, and all of them had similar purpose and origin. The instruments vary in design, a number of keys, and materials used to create them.
Each of these instruments offers something different and unique and quickly became a common thing in almost every part of Africa. However, the popularity of the thumb piano was the highest in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Kalimba Can Attract Ancient Spirits
Did you know that the ancestor of kalimba had a very important place among people? One of the versions of mbira was rather important for Shona culture and religion. It was considered to be a sacred instrument, and they believed that gods gave people mbiras so they could communicate with spirits.
It was an essential part of celebrations, big events, but for funerals as well. People would play the favorite song of their ancestors as a way to lure their spirit back to the ceremony so they could communicate with it.
Shona also believed that being on good terms with your ancestors is important, and it’s one of the main reasons why mbira took a central position in their society.
Change In Materials
As time passed the instrument evolved and so the materials were changed. The first mbira that appeared on the west coast was made of wood. Interestingly, the tines or lamellae were also made of bamboo, and these materials were in use for the next century.
However, once the instrument was re-invented in the Zambezi River valley, tines were made of a metal similar to what you can find on kalimbas today.
Over the years, people experimented with different materials both for the board and tines. If we take a look at kalimbas today, you can find ones made of acrylic, wood, plastic, or any other instrument.
Zimbabwe’s National Instrument
Due to its rich history and the impact it had on the people in Africa, it seems natural that it is a national instrument. In Zimbabwe, mbira had an important role, and it is a national instrument.
Interestingly, May 21, 2020 was dedicated to celebrating mbira as a part of Zimbabwe’s Culture Week. You could have learned more about the nature of the instrument, its impact on the culture, as well as have a virtual tour of this popular African instrument.
For all of those who enjoy Google doodles, there was a special animation that told an inspiring story about preserving the culture and exploring this incredible instrument.
But even if you didn’t get the opportunity to play virtual mbira, you can still do it if you follow the link below. You will get a chance to play beautiful songs, and experience the beauty of Zimbabwean culture.
Thumb Piano And Hugh Tracey
Hugh Tracey was an ethnomusicologist from England, and he dedicated his life to collect, record, and capture the music of Africa. Thanks to him, we can play kalimbas today. He took the inspiration from several tribes and used the original mbira for the instrument he designed.
This instrument is kalimba. Kalimba itself is not an African instrument, but it is actually a westernized version of mbira. It follows western music theory, and the first kalimba he made had a G major scale.
Over the years, the instrument became popular across the world, and Hugh Tracey gave the opportunity to the rest of the world to enjoy this incredible instrument from Africa. Over the years, he and his wife made over thirty thousand recordings of African folk music.
He made a great impact on the rest of the world and gave us the opportunity to discover the beautiful culture, music, and tradition. What is interesting is that Hugh Tracey really disliked the nickname thumb piano.
Evolution Of Tines
As I already mentioned, the first tines on the thumb piano were made of bamboo. Over the years, the concept and design improved, and it was soon replaced by metal. But the first metal used for creating tines was from the rock containing iron ore. Naturally, today, you will find different versions of steel like spring steel, steel ore, stainless steel, and many others.
People looking to make their own kalimbas usually use bicycle spokes, sofa springs, car seats, or any type of recycled steel that will allow them to create that recognizable sound of the kalimba.
In essence, you can use any metal to create tines as long as you’ll be able to enjoy playing the instrument afterward.
To Buzz Or Not To Buzz
The main difference between the kalimba and mbira (besides tuning) is in sound tines make. On the original mbira, there is a distinct buzzing that makes the instrument unique and recognizable. However, kalimba players are often looking for a way to have a clean sound without the buzz.
But this isn’t something that’s strict, and many players are trying to get the best of both worlds. One of the ways to make the sound interesting is to place a necklace on top of the tines, and with each played note, the tine will vibrate and make the necklace buzz. Some instruments come with these chains already, or they can even have individual buzzers on each tine.
On mbiras, there are often bottle tops that will increase both buzzing and volume of the instrument.
If you are a beginner player, there is a high chance that you bought a standard kalimba in the key of C. As previously mentioned, Hugh Tracey kalimbas are usually in G major, but these are just two of the possible tunings. Interestingly, even if you use all keys in western music, it is still just the tip of the iceberg.
In Africa, there are thousands of different tunings, and each region will use a different one. The types would depend on the songs they want to play, their musical taste, or nearly anything else. Since kalimbas are such versatile instruments, you can experiment with tunings as much as you want, even on your own kalimba.
Many players get several instruments that they keep in different tunings to allow them to easily switch between keys and different songs.
There are two types of kalimbas available, those with a resonator box and the ones with a board on which tines are attached. If you have a thumb piano with a resonator, the volume will be much higher, but there are still ways to improve the sound properties of the kalimba.
One of the popular ways to increase the volume is by placing the instrument into the bowl. This will allow the sound to reflect directly to you, and help you hear everything better. Some kalimbas have a frame drum that allows the user to modify the sound by moving the instrument similar to the wah effect on the guitar.
But even if you are looking for something more, there is a perfect solution. You can find electric kalimbas that have a piezo pickup installed inside that will allow you to plug the instrument into the amplifier or speaker. This way, you can perform live or play with a band.
Magnets are fun. Everyone loves playing with them, but did you know they can be quite useful for playing the kalimba? Since standard kalimbas are usually in the key of C major, it means that there are neither sharps nor flats you can use. So what do you do if you want additional notes, but aren’t willing to change the tuning for a single song?
The answer is magnets. By placing the magnet on the tine, you’ll be able to change the pitch of a single note, allowing you to replace one of the notes with a sharp or flat. Naturally, it might take you a bit of practice to do it on the go, and if you never experimented with it, you can always use a tuner.
The tuner will allow you to find a perfect spot for a magnet, and it will give you more options and variations when it comes to playing. The magnets you will use should be as small as possible, and you can easily find them online. Usually, the width of the tine is a perfect size, and it is something you should definitely try out.
Earth, Wind & Fire
You must be living under a rock if you don’t know about Earth, Wind & Fire. The band was huge, especially during the seventies, and they managed to span several different genres like R&B, funk, soul, jazz, pop, disco, Afro-pop, and others.
People still describe them as one of the most innovative bands to this day, and they had such an impact on the music even today.
But one of the reasons they are mentioned on this list is due to the late Maurice White. He was the founder of the band, a singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, and kalimba player. That’s right, thanks to him, many people were able to discover kalimba, and he had such an impact on the musical culture.
His first recording on the kalimba was in 1969 and managed to make thumb piano mainstream by incorporating it into his songs. He also established a production company called Kalimba Productions, and record label Kalimba Music. He was one of the most impactful players of kalimba, and he continues inspiring many people to this day.
The Gods Must Be Crazy
If you never had a chance to see this South African comedy, you are missing a lot. The story happens in Botswana and follows a tribe that is unaware of the rest of the world. It is the most successful release in the history of film in South Africa.
But the main reason why this is one of the entries on the list is that it’s one of the first places where people from all over the world could encounter mbira. Even though the film is set in Botswana, one of the characters from the movie has a beautiful performance on the thumb piano.
For many, this was the first encounter with this incredible instrument, and it sure made an impact.
Everyone knows about Space Oddity. It was written and recorded by David Bowie, and it became one of his signature songs. The song was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s movie, and it was the first single to chart in the UK.
While many know Space Oddity as one of the most popular songs by brilliant David Bowie, many don’t know that he is also credited for playing several instruments including the kalimba.
At the beginning of the song, we can hear Bowie playing acoustic guitar, but there is one more instrument you might recognize. The kalimba appears during the intro and the first verse, and it really manages to add something special to this incredible song.
Besides Bowie, many other popular musicians played the thumb piano including Phil Collins, Steve Hackett from Genesis, Jamie Muir from King Crimson, and of course, Maurice White.
It’s Both Fun And Easy
Kalimba is undoubtedly one of the easiest instruments you can learn. Even if you never had experience playing an instrument, you can still manage to play a song with just a bit of practice. This is why kalimbas can be fun for children as well as grownups.
There is something almost meditative in the sound of the thumb piano, and the basic idea behind it is simple. You will enjoy having fun with it regardless of your age and musical taste.
Since modern kalimbas offer a single scale, you can’t really miss a note since all of them are in the same key. Of course, you will need to practice to become a good player, but the journey will be worth your effort.
But even if you are an experienced player or even a multi-instrumentalist, you can still have fun playing the kalimba.
It is also a great opportunity to explore different cultures and learn more about the incredible music of Africa. There is a reason why Hugh Tracey dedicated his life to preserving and keeping the beautiful culture of this continent.
You might be aware that music can be an expensive hobby. If you are a guitar or piano player, you will need to spend thousands on getting a professional instrument. Furthermore, learning something like the piano can take you years and years of practice and dedication.
But getting a good kalimba is quite affordable. Even if you get a “more expensive” instrument, you will still spend between $30 and $50, and you can find beautiful hand-made kalimbas that will undoubtedly make you practice even more.
It is not often that you can have incredible instruments for such a low price, and thumb pianos are something you should definitely check out.
Even if you already have one, you can still get a new one to spice things up, or keep it in a different tuning. The Kalimba community is only growing and more and more people are interested in exploring and learning more about this astonishing African instrument.
Kalimba can be fun. If you never had experience playing one, you are missing a lot. Over the years, people started discovering it, and the number of players is on the rise. It is a great ode to African culture and the beauty that comes with it. It is an excellent opportunity to learn how to play a new instrument and start creating beautiful music.
If you found this article useful you may want to save this pin below to your Kalimba board