I’ve been playing the kalimba since the mid 1980’s when I grew weary of the cliche guitar sounds everyone was making at that time, and still make. It was also my first instrument as a child really, although I didn’t become serious with it until my 20’s. Since then, I have been collecting various types some with bottlecaps as “rattles”, and some with multiple rows of tines.
I guess Maurice White of “Earth, Wind and Fire” was really the one who inspired me most, but I have always had a deep love and understanding of African people in general and this instrument is very much an African instrument. I have always imagined myself performing on David Letterman with my kalimba, although that’s highly unlikely to happen. People seem to like my playing a lot, and I have done some remarkable shows here downtown with Alan Meyers, the drummer from DEVO who recently passed, may he rest in peace. He told me to call him anytime I had a show so I did exactly that a few times;. Although I had some feedback issues with my early electric Kalimbas, the shows were usually a resounding success. By that I don’t mean we made any money, because we didn’t, but we did have some fun.
My only gripe really is that people don’t take the instrument seriously sometimes. Everyone thinks they are invited to sit in and bang on a bongo or become our lead singer, which was usually annoying. Yes, I have been playing the kalimba for over 30 years to backup this singer who has decided to be the “star” and join our band. In retrospect, I wish I had said something like that, but I generally just let it go or stopped playing til they went away. It would be different if they had approached me and said, “oh hey, do you mind if I join you guys up there?” but that’s not how they did it because, oh hey, it’s a TOY PIANO, must be a SINGALONG right?
Others have been incredibly respectful and really in awe of the instrument. I can always tell a newbie who has NEVER seen or heard the instrument. They are in a state of pure awe and even bliss sometimes, on a good day. “what is THAT?” they will ask in disbelief.
For first timers, it’s like they have seen something that is magical, and suddenly magic is real. It’s like that. I don’t know why.
Anyway, I havn’t really done any writing on this subject, but the following bit inspired me to start a blog post about this ancient instrument that has been such a big part of my life in Los Angeles and has really helped me through some hard times as well.
As Maurice White sang “See me through my hardest times”. I guess it has been that way for me too.
The thumb piano or kalimba is an African musical instrument, a type of plucked idiophone (lamellophone) common throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Also known as a ” sansa” and “mbira”, it is popular throughout central, western and eastern Africa. It was formerly known as the Negro piano. The kalimba is played by holding the instrument in the hands and plucking the tines with the thumbs.
Various kinds of thumb pianos have existed in Africa for thousands of years. The tines were originally made of bamboo but over the years metal keys have been developed. The instrument is known by different names in different regions of Africa, including mbira, mbila, mbira huru, mbira njari, hurdy gurdy, mbira nyunga, marimba, karimba, kalimba, likembe, and okeme, as well as marímbula (also called kalimba) in the Caribbean Islands.
The kalimba appears to have been invented twice in Africa: a wood or bamboo-tined instrument appeared on the west coast of Africa about 3000 years ago, and metal-tined lamellophones appeared in the Zambezi River valley around 1,300 years ago. These metal-tined instruments traveled all across the continent and differentiated in their physical form and social uses as they spread. Kalimba-like instruments came to exist from the northern reaches of North Africa to the southern extent of the Kalahari Desert, and from the east coast to the west coast, though many or most groups of people in Africa did not possess kalimbas. There were thousands of different tunings, different note layouts, and different instrument designs, but there is a hypothetical tuning and note layout of the original metal-tined instrument from 1,300 years ago.
The thumb piano was typically played while walking by traveling griots who keep the history of the tribe or village, and to entertain people with songs, stories, poems, dances, etc. One of its indigenous names for this instrument can be translated, “The thing that makes walking easier.” It was thought in ancient times that the thumb piano was able to project its sound into the heavens and could draw down spirits to the earth. Some of them were evil spirits so the people would stop playing the music until the spirits had departed from the area.
Many players and griot clans have their own idiosyncratic tunings. Most of the time the instrument is played solo and tuning is not as critical as when playing with other musicians. But the tuning can be changed by adjusting the length of the metal tines inward or outward. It is also often an important instrument to be played at religious ceremonies, weddings, and other social gatherings. It is a particularly common musical instrument of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
In the mid 1900s the instrument was the basis for the development of the kalimba, a westernized thumb piano designed and marketed by the ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, leading to a great expansion of its distribution outside of Africa. While the arrangement of notes on a thumb piano is considerably different from those on a piano or guitar, their arrangement is fairly intuitive, and it is considered to be an instrument easily learned. This quality is exploited in many elementary schools who use the thumb piano as an entry-level instrument.