I only recently discovered Thomas Bothe's delightful kalimbas. These are very high quality instruments, and, clearly, labors of love. The care and attention to every detail that is evident in the workmanship of these instruments made me very curious about their creator. I was quite pleased that Thomas was able to spend a little time telling me about himself and his work.
KM: Thomas, how long have you been working with wood, and how long have you been making kalimbas?
TB: I started making kalimbas in 1993, following a 16-month trip to Asia. I started woodworking at the same time, crafting other instruments like drums, flutes, and didjeridoos, etc. The first kalimba that I built was a five-tine coconut shell instrument. People around me liked it, and more or less talked me into making more, so my woodworking focused more and more just on the kalimba.
KM: You seem to be a totally intuitive kalimba maker - do you have any musical training? What instruments do you play?
TB: I had some conventional musical training as a child, learning notes and playing the accordion. But later I forgot all of what I had learned. In my mid-twenties, I played bass with a friend who played drums; we were inspired by music from Krautrock bands like Can. In India I had some training on the sitar, the sarod, and the surbahar, and listened to a lot of beautiful concerts of Indian classical music.
KM: Do you use an electronic tuner when you tune the kalimbas? Do you really make a special tuning for each kalimba?
TB: I never use electronic tuners for my instruments. When each one is finished, I start tuning until I am satisfied. Naturally, there is some repetition in the tuning, when I have to tune a lot of instruments in a short time.
KM: Tell me the sorts of ideas or factors that are in your mind when you invent a new tuning for a particular kalimba.
TB: To be honest, there are no thoughts or ideas in my mind when I tune a new kalimba. I just listen and continue tuning until Iím happy with the result. I determine the tuning as a suggestion for the buyer, and I have always tried to craft my kalimbas in such a way that the buyer can easily change the tuning to suit his or her requirement.
KM: Some people just see things that other people don't see. I am reminded of a sailboat racer at MIT around 1980 who, on a particularly calm day, managed to win a race by a huge margin - he made a number of lucky tacks and ended up being in a position to take advantage of little gusts of wind that other racers could not. When someone asked how he had raced so brilliantly, he replied "I just sailed between the red and the blue winds." Huh!? On the other hand, your kalimbas resemble this remark! How do you do it?
TB: Mark, the whole kalimba thing is a challenge for me but not a competition. For me it's a free source of inspiration open for everyone.
KM: I tell people that my real talent is that I can recognize magic when it happens. I can't necessarily make it happen, but when it does, I can shine a light on the magic, highlight it so other people can see it.
TB: Mark, what can I say? Keep on that way!
KM: Have any stores or internet sellers started to carry your kalimbas?
TB: Some stores in Germany and the Netherlands have been carrying my instruments since 1994. Currently there is no internet seller carrying my products. Due to the fact that I was producing kalimbas as a one-man project, the production hasn't been voluminous enough to require a larger marketing strategy.
KM: Do you record your own kalimba music?
TB: No, but some of my close friends do.
KM: What sort of person buys your kalimbas?
TB: People from all walks of life buy my kalimbas: the smaller ones are usually bought by women and parents, who buy them for their kids; the larger or more complex ones are mostly bought by musicians. Unfortunately, about 70% of my production has gone to stores, so it's hard for me to know who is actually purchasing them.
KM: Is making kalimbas your day job, or do you still need to work at something else to support yourself?
TB: It has been my day job for around half of the time I have been making kalimbas. It is my wish to do it full-time, but experience has shown that it isn't always enough to support me.
KM: What else do you do besides making kalimbas?
TB: I paint and I write. I like to create and prepare meals for friends. And otherwise, I like to jam with some of my close friends.
KM: Where do you hope to be in your career 10 years from now?
TB: I cannot identify with the word career. I don't want to be either a winner or a loser. That's also the main reason why I have branded my project "2B kalimba". If the question is, "where do you hope to be a decade from now", then I might answer "I hope to be alive, well, and more aware than today."
KM: Of all your creations, which one is your favorite?
TB: I don't have a favorite. I'm always happy being creative and not repetitive.
KM: Thomas Bothe, thank you so much for sharing a bit about yourself. Your answers were a joy to me. It seems that not only are your kalimbas very special, but also you are a very special human being. May you continue 2 B an increasingly aware light in this world, and may your light help others shine.