A Message from Mark Holdaway
Tuning Kalimbas at the UNICEF Store


Last month, I played joyous holiday music on the kalimba at Fellowship Square (a retirement village here in Tucson) on a Thursday night, and a volunteer from the UNICEF store in town stopped me afterwards and spoke with me: "We sell these instruments at the store, but I didn't realize that they could play real music. You must come and play for us at the UNICEF store."

That Sunday, I played music at the Unitarian church, and another volunteer from the UNICEF store invited me to come down and demonstrate the kalimbas. I remember the kalimbas they had at 10,000 Villages, a similar store that sold crafts from around the world—they were not impressive kalimbas, more like coffee table pieces than instruments. But I said I would be open to it.

The next day, I got a call from Mary Puller, the director of the Tucson UNICEF store, and we made a date for me to come down and share what I could. Mary explains about the UNICEF store, which sells neat and beautiful arts, crafts, and clothes from countries all around the world: "We generate funds for UN [United Nations] education in Southern Arizona and for UNICEF [the UN Children's Fund]. We've been in Tucson for 35 years, and every year we build up a bit more client base so more people know about and support what we do."

When I got to the UNICEF store, I was not really sure what I was supposed to do. When I saw the kalimbas that were there, they were not at all like the cheap kalimbas I was expecting to see. In fact, one of the instruments looked like the Hugh Tracey trademark shape, a traditional kalimba shape. I could tell from the lengths of the tines that it was trying to be a primal karimba—but it was hopelessly out of tune. I started working on it. The way these rustic kalimbas were assembled and the tines held in place, I had to keep taking the tines off the instrument and bend them just right so they would be held firmly in place and not buzz. One by one, I tuned these instruments into a plausible tuning. As I was working on each kalimba, a customer would start talking with me, and as I pushed and pulled the tines, the customer would become interested in that instrument. One by one, the kalimbas went up to the cashier and were sold.

Primal Karimba
Primal 8-note karimba mounted on gourd.

One customer, Tam, couldn't make up her mind between two kalimbas. One of them was an 8-note primal karimba, mounted on a gourd. The other looked like a baby mbira with fewer tines, but I had no idea how it was supposed to be tuned. I just kept playing on it and moving the pitch of the tines a bit, and gradually it came into focus. Tam was called away for a bit by her husband, and it was then that I learned from Mary Puller that these kalimbas had all been gifted to the UNICEF store by a woman who had collected them in the 1950s. Ah! They predated the Hugh Tracey kalimbas. They were the original items. They are really worth something, for they are a doorway into the unadulterated past of Africa. But they had languished in the shop for months. Out of tune and out of sorts, they did not sound very appealing, and nobody had bought them. Until now.

anotehr Unicef kalimba
Another kalimba at the UNICECF store.

When Tam came back, I told her that these kalimbas were collected in the 1950s, and they predate the era of commercialization, they are the genuine article. She bought them both, plus a third one.

But there was another instrument that nobody was interested in. It was made out of bamboo. I've seen photos of these in Gerhardt Kubik's book on African lamellaphones (thumb pianos). Kubik was an ethnomusicologist contemporary of Andrew Tracey's - they split up Africa, with Andrew studying in the south and Kubik studying in the north. Kubik estimates that Africans living in the Zambezi River Valley started using iron for kalimba tines about 1300 years ago. But before that, people from western Africa had been making bamboo lamellaphones, perhaps as early as 3000 years ago. And this instrument, with bamboo body and bamboo tines, was a link to that most ancient past.

Primal Karimba
Bamboo-tined kalimba.

I have no idea of the notes this bamboo kalimba should be tuned to. I do know that they often have tines of identical lengths which are tuned by lumping bees wax on the underside of the tines, making them more massive, reducing the vibrational frequency and hence making a lower pitch. Instead, I just pushed the tines in a bit. Octaves and 5ths are perfect, but I made sure to tune with a somewhat flattened 3rd. And, as if the ancestors are there guiding me, I find my way to a tuning that speaks to me. And to others as well. It sounds like an archaic African kalimba ought to.

Or so it seems. I am not an ethnomusicologist, who is a scientist, seeking evidence to support his/her hunches. I do learn what I can, but, to me, the heart of it all is in the NOW instant. Based on what I understand about how these instruments have been tuned and used, I seek to get inside an ancient African's head - but really it is just my projection of what some ancient African thought. I create something in the NOW that speaks to the past, present and future.

Listen to the bamboo kalimba after I tuned it. The octave and 5th are western intervals, but the 3rd is between major and minor. Other notes include the 2nd, 4th, and flat 7th.

Bamboo kalimba

Mary Puller: "We've never had anything quite like Mark coming in to tune the UNICEF store kalimbas. We got all these instruments from someone who collected them from Africa in the 1950s, but we couldn't make them sound good. Just the tones Mark achieved on these instruments was astounding."

I told Mary that I wanted to purchase that old bamboo kalimba, and she smiled and took the price tag off so she could mark it properly in the books, and said "Thanks for coming Mark, it's yours!" I use it now in my performances to demonstrate what the truly ancient kalimbas looked and sounded like.

There are surely hundreds of people across the country who know enough about tuning kalimbas, fixing the buzzes, and making these instruments sound good to do this sort of thing. I got a great kick out of meeting some cool people at the UNICEF store. If you are someone who could do this, I encourage you to go and introduce yourself to your local UNICEF Store or 10,000 Villages Store and see what you can discover. If you aren't someone who is able to do this, you might think about starting by tinkering with your kalimbas yourself to discover what makes them sound better or worse. If you are tinkering, remember to use care, as kalimba tines win against fingers if they ever get into a confrontation. We have a web page in the Learn How Section that links to writings on setting up or fixing up your kalimba, and this information will be helpful to you as you discover how to improve the sound of your kalimba.

By the way, if you have a kalimba that you aren't happy with, you can send it to us. We have a Kalimba Doctor service for tuning a kalimba, doing a major tuneup on it, or inventing a tuning for a kalimba that you just have no idea how it is supposed to be tuned.

—Mark Holdaway, January 11, 2010


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