Carl Winters is a multi-instrumentalist, but the kalimba is the instrument that has put him on the map as the Kalimba King. He makes a large part of his living from playing kalimba and giving presentations about the kalimba in schools, libraries, and universities.
KM: Carl, how long have you been playing the kalimba?
CW: 35 years.
KM: How long have you been making your living primarily through playing the kalimba?
CW: For the last four years I have been playing music and substitute teaching in the Oakland Unified School District. The two incomes complement each other.
KM: It looks like most of your kalimbas are Hugh Tracey kalimbas.
CW: Of my 23 kalimbas, 20 are Hugh Tracey models.
KM: What are the other kalimbas?
CW: Some were made by friends who gave them to me.
KM: Do you put your kalimbas in different tunings?
KM: How do you like the Alto vs. the Treble?
CW: It depends on the particular song that I'm playing. If I want more high notes I use the Treble. If I want more low notes I use the Alto.
KM: Do you remember the first time you played the kalimba? How were you introduced to the kalimba?
CW: I saw an Earth, Wind & Fire concert in 1974. Maurice White, founder & lead singer of EWF inspired me when he played the kalimba that night. A few days later, a friend bought one. After playing his for a week, I bought one.
KM: Do you teach people to play the kalimba?
CW: A few potential students have asked me for lessons, but they never followed through. I always tell them that it is a tough sell and that they may want to learn a "mainstream" instrument instead.
KM: You have quite an extensive repertoire on the kalimba, proof that you are dedicated and that the kalimba is a real instrument. Can you share with us a few song titles that might surprise people who might not realize how versatile the kalimba is?
CW: "Amazing Grace", "Stand By Me," "Sugar," "O Happy Day," "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," "The Star Spangled Banner," "Over The Rainbow," "Summertime," many gospel hymns and, of course, 12 bar blues.
KM: In addition to playing the kalimba, you also give presentations about the kalimba - which must involve a lot of playing. What sorts of things do you cover in your presentations?
CW: Sometimes I'll do a Powerpoint presentation. Most presentations, Powerpoint or not, include a lecture about how the instrument is used in the context of African cultures. I cover the history, names and shapes of the kalimba, as well as mentioning the countries where the instrument is popular. Handouts are sometimes provided.
KM: As an African American, how do you get a sense of connection to African culture through playing the kalimba?
CW: The kalimba pulls me close to Africa each time I play it. But to be honest my interaction with music in general usually ends up being an Afrocentric experience. For example, when I was a kid my friends and I would take everyday nursery rhymes, i.e. "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Old McDonald Had a Farm," etc., and make them very syncopated and jazzy—often giving the song a very earthy, jungle feel. This was done without a kalimba. The point is that the African sense of rhythm is often present at a young age among African Americans. For many years I noticed this quality while supervising playgrounds during recess as a school teacher. However, the kalimba is a catalyst in terms of me connecting to African culture.
KM: I have noticed an interesting thing: there are a lot of people in America who play the mbira or karimba - traditional kalimbas from Africa - and they learn to play traditional African music on these instruments, and most of these people are white. Most black Americans I know who play the kalimba do not play traditional African music. This last statement describes you. Why do you play the music you play on the kalimba, and why don't you play traditional African music?
CW: I cut my teeth on jazz, blues and gospel; therefore, my allegiance is to these genres first. Had I been raised in China, I would be playing Chinese songs. An artist usually (though not always) draws upon his experiences and pours them onto his canvas. My experiences happened in churches and honky tonks. However, jazz, blues and gospel all have African roots. Thus, visions of Africa constantly invade my musical space when I play.
KM: A lot of people have communicated with me their spiritual experiences of the kalimba. For example, people in Brazil participating in a meditative religious ritual, people in Peru undergoing psychotropic spiritual journeys, Christians playing the kalimba in worship services, people who do not even believe in God having numinous experiences while playing the kalimba... People of all religious stripes can have trigger or deepen spiritual experience using the kalimba. What's your take on that?
CW: For me, it's all about freedom of expression. The kalimba is a vehicle that I use to express my experiences as well as my imagination. But I also use the guitar and my voice to do the same thing.
You can learn more about Carl Winters and listen to some of his music at his website, www.KalimbaKing.com . He is available for performances and presentations, both in the Bay Area and also throughout the U.S., if you are lucky enough to be on one of his tour paths.