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Mark Holdaway Answers Your Kalimba Questions

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I've been getting some repeat questions lately—it seems like the answers to these questions will be of interest to the greater kalimba community. In fact, I' have begun collecting questions and will be answering them in this regular column. So send me your questions!


Which Kalimba is Most Like Chandra Lacombe's?

There is a great Brazillian kalimba player named Chandra Lacombe, and I've had a few people who were really taken by his music and have asked me which kalimba he plays.

Chandra's kalimba is not a Hugh Tracey, but an artisan kalimba which was roughly copied from the 2-octave, 15-note Hugh Tracey Alto.

I have tablature for some music I transcribed some time ago from Chandra's web site, in both PDF and KTabS format, but I transcribed this for someone who was playing the Catania 12-Note board piano - which indicates that you don't need to have exactly 15 notes to play Chandra's music.

By the way, here is a musical instrument maker in Argentina who makes kalimbas (among other things). He isn't the maker of Chandra's kalimba.

And we can't mention Brazillian kalimba players without mentioning Decio Gioielli, who plays Hugh Tracey kalimbas - alto, treble, and karimba.


How to Tune a 7-Note Kalimba

Several people got 7-note kalimbas for Christmas! I know, because they wrote to me and asked me how to tune them. I actually don't have any 7-tined kalimbas. The ones people got for Christmas were probably made in Indonesia, though I've also seen some from Africa too. I don't think it is a traditional instrument, or that it needs to be tuned to a traditional scale.

So, I recommend you tune it just like the 8-note kalimbas, but skip the 7th as the pentatonic scale does - so this will be half diatonic, and half pentatonic.

I would recommend that you figure out the closest western note to the current highest note as well as the current lowest note. If the low note doesn't sound good, you may need to raise its pitch by pushing the tine in until it sounds better (you can make a low note that is too low for the resonator, in which case, you will hear as much overtone as fundamental, and that will sound weird).

We want an octave between the lowest and the highest note - if there is less than an octave, see if you can raise the highest note up to an octave above the low one. If it is slightly off from a western note - such as F or F# or G - "round up" or "round down" to the nearest western note.

I would suggest a back and forth left to right note layout, such as:

6          8
  4       5
    2   3

A           C
  F       G
    D   E

Anyway, it is as good a tuning as any other for this instrument. A modification would be a minor tuning, such as

Bb          C
  F       G
    D   Eb

Best of luck!


How to Change the Key of an Alto Kalimba

Hi, I'm Patrick. I was just wondering if the alto kalimbas you sell come in different keys; such as, C D A etc. (Just examples).


The standard tuning that the Alto comes in is G major. When you purchase a kalimba from Kalimba Magic, we will perform a retuning to the key of your choice for free on most kalimbas. But for maximum versatility, I recommend that you learn how to retune for yourself. Below I describe two methods for changing the key of the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba:

First Method

Shift all tines shorter or longer (sharp or flat) -- this shifts the key and maintains the relationships among tines, but there are physical limits on how far you can go - maybe a whole step flat and 1-2 steps up. You can't go more than a whole step flat because the tines are not long enough - they will just fall out of the instrument. Even if you got special super long tines, the box would stop resonating with the low note if you made it too long, and you would hear the overtone more - which sounds bad. You can't go much higher than 1-2 steps because the higher tines start sounding bad - I think the wood on the box cannot vibrate as fast as the tine needs to vibrate, and the note sort of goes "thud". By the way, I did exactly this sort of retuning when I created the F Alto for the Yo-Yo Ma contest.

Retuning every note on the kalimba is hard work though, and you are somewhat limited in how much you can change the key.

Second Method

Another way to change the key of the kalimba is to go around the circle of fiths, i.e., change the F#'s into F naturals -- only 2 notes get retuned by a half step, which I can do during performances in between songs. This changes the key from G to C. Further changing the B's into B flats would then take us into the key of F, but the low note is still G (the 2nd of the scale). Another advantage is that this method keeps the range of the kalimba the same that it was designed for - you won't get yourself into the situation where you have tuned a note higher or lower than the kalimba can produce. The disadvantage is that after you retune in this way (adding sharps or flats), it is, fundamentally, a new instrument: the root is in a different place, so you'll need to relearn the instrument to some extent!


I hope these answers are helpful to the greater kalimba community. I certainly don't know everything about the kalimba, but I know a lot, I am learning more each day, and I am happy to share this information. That is one of the things Kalimba Magic is about - sharing! So send me your questions!