The Student Karimba is tuned to the same relative pitches
as what is thought to be the original mbira first made with metal tines in
the Zambezi River Valley some 1300 years ago. Not only is it a perfect instrument to
start children on, it also teaches us that the ancient Africans made some pretty
The Student Karimba is made up of the lower row of tines of the
Andrew Tracey (Hugh Tracey's son)
has speculated that the instrument
which we call the Student Karimba is the kalimba core - because
it is at the center of several different ancient African thumb pianos;
and perhaps the original mbira - because it is plausible that
the other types of instruments could have evolved from this little instrument.
The Student Karimba is the common denominator, and it may be the common ancestor.
What this means to me is: this instrument may be the
fastest and easiest way to experience what ancient Africans
did when they played music over 1000 years ago.
Some of the possible tunings for the Student Karimba.
Each tuning bears the same relationships among the notes.
While most kalimbas can be tuned to anything you want, any key,
any scale - the Student Karimba needs to maintain the relationships
shown in the tuning diagram, or it isn't the student karimba anymore.
The numbers represent the degrees of the
scale, and are all the same for each different tuning. We are only
changing the key. The last diagram shows the microtonal tuning - i.e.,
the African scales are not exactly the same as the western scales,
and some notes could be tuned 20 or 40 cents flat; 0 means the note is
right on with the western note. The fact that several notes are right
on zero indicates that the native tuning of the karimba recognizes
perfect fifths and perfect octaves.
Strictly speaking, only the eight solid tines are the kalimba core,
but African players and instrument builders would add more tines, going up the scale
and resulting in redundant notes - just as the right-most ninth tine does.
With the same note on the left side, this pair of "1", "8" notes makes it possible
to repeat that note very quickly, a trick I love. This optional ninth note in the
Student Karimba is a nod to one of the traditional ways Africans extended the scope
of these instruments over the centuries.
The Student Karimba: A Doorway to Ancient Africa starts with gentle
and easy exercises to help you get accustomed to the instrument, but eventually
dives into the body of traditional African songs that can be played on the Student
Karimba. One of the earliest published papers that included notated mbira
songs, A.M. Jones's 1950 documentation of the Lala Tribe's kalimba in Northern Rhodesia,
is played on this instrument and is included in this book. Several of Hugh Tracey's
field recordings from the 1950s are notated here as well.
Also included are a body of karimba songs carried by Jega Tapera and popularized by
Paul F. Berliner in The Soul of Mbira, by Andrew Tracey in his scholarly
works, and by Dumisani who brought Jega Tapera's karimba music to America in
1970. While Jega Tapera's karimba was a 13 note instrument (later replaced by a 15
note instrument at the Kwonangoma Music College, and then the 17 note Hugh Tracey
karimba), almost every one of his songs started out with several variations that
used only the lower row of notes, hinting that these variations may have a truly
ancient origin, i.e., before the upper row of notes was added to the instrument
several hundred years ago. This is all speculative, but it is also a tantalizing
story: to think that by chance we might have the same melodies that African
ancients played over 1000 years ago!
You can read this article on the Kankobela, a 10 note descendent of
the 8 note student karimba - when A.M. Jones first met the La La tribe in the 1930s,
they played an 8 note instrument, but when he returned around 1950, they had
added two more notes to extend the range of music they could play on the instrument.
Strangely enough, most of the songs they played did not use the two new notes.
I invite you to read these book reviews and comments by Andrew Tracey and B. Michael Williams
that should help shed some light on the Student Karimba.
In the coming years, I look forward to watching this new version
of a truly ancient instrument become more popular in the schools,
in ethnomusicology programs at universities, and in living rooms
and campsites around the world. I look forward to people learning
the old ways and inventing new music on this unique kalimba.
Over the years, we have provided a number of Tips of the Day on
the Student Karimba (also referred to here as the Primal Karimba)
- fortunately they are all archived! This is
a great place to start, as some of these tips have riffs and
information straight from the book - but for free!