Steve Catania of Catania Folk Instruments is one of the mainstays of the American kalimba movement. He's been making musical instruments now for 21 years, and has been making kalimbas for 15 years. The Catania instruments are good quality kalimbas that don't cost all that much - a great value, especially considering that they are made right here in the USA and not China, Indonesia, or Pakistan. Kalimbas have gone from being a small part of Steve's business to being his main thing, and he has responded to the interest in the kalimba by making new and exciting kalimba models, which is one of the reasons we are talking to him today. You can learn more about Steve's company and his products by visiting the Catania Folk Instruments web site.
KM: Steve, one of the things that impressed me about the Catania kalimbas is the precision of the wood working. Do you do this with jigs, or computer-controlled power tools, or do you just have a great eye?
SC: Well Mark, you know that I can barely send an e-mail when it comes to the computer, so we can safely rule out computer-controlled power tools!
Because we are a small production shop we utilize several jigs and templates to increase efficiency and to maintain consistency, both of which ultimately benifit the consumer. I have to say that designing the jigs and templates is the most fun I have. These are not elaborate things. They are usually made of scap wood or metal I have laying around. But I do obsess over their accuracy because you only have to make them once, and that one jig can be used to help produce thousands of instruments.
KM: How many people work in your shop?
SC: My wife Tami and I started this business in 1989. Within a year we knew we needed to hire some folks. I have a small shop, about 1200 square feet, and at one point had about 6 people working for us. We were doing all the shows up and down the East Coast. We decided to slow down and for the last 10 years have had just two employees.
KM: What inspired you to get into the kalimba game in the first place? You were making a reasonable living making other instruments, weren't you?
SC: I lived in Eugene, Oregon back in the 70's and every Saturday in the middle of town they had a craft fair and farmers market. There was never a shortage of musical instrument vendors back then. That's when I was first introduced to dulcimers, tongue drums, and kalimbas, and decided to try my hand at making them. The first shows I entered I just made dulcimers. After awhile I introduced the tongue drums, and my version of musical wooden spoons called Catpaws. For years I basically made a living making these three items. The tongue drums especially were a good seller. The kalimba is basically a tongue drum, but with metal vibrating instead of wood, and they were much easier to tune. Soon we found ourselves making thousands of both board and gourd models of the kalimba. We spent so much time making kalimbas that we finally phased out the tongue drums.
KM: In rough terms, how many kalimbas has Catania Folk Instruments put out into the world?
SC: We've been making these for over 15 years so I'd have to say tens of thousands.
KM: You have a good eye for design - I can see that in your logo, in the shape and proportions of your instruments, in the wood, in the overall design. But the coolest design I've seen from Catania Folk Instruments is the new electric Kalimba, an electric kalimba that is shaped like a Fender Stratacaster. Tell us about this new development.
SC: I have to say, Mark, that the idea for an electric kalimba was brought about by your encouragement. During one of our phone conversations we were talking about wiring a pickup into a kalimba and you said to me, very emphatically that I should make electric kalimbas. Well since I seriously consider you THE kalimba guru I took to heart what you said and started to scribble some designs out onto my workbench.
An electric guitar shape seemed to be the natural way to go. There was a lot of trial and error involved, but now I feel confident that the electric kalimba will provide the bridge between tradition and technology. Anyone with an amplifier and a guitar cable can enter a whole new dimension of kalimba music that will be able to reach much larger audiences, which, after all, is our mission.
KM: Over the years, a lot of people have found joy through music with your instruments in their hands - some are people that didn't think they were particularly musical. And I suspect that you never hear from most of those people. Some of them must get back to you. What is the most inspiring thing you've heard from a Catania Kalimba owner?
SC: We live in a remote area, but I once had a woman from England come and look us up and visit our shop. She said that until she found the kalimba, music didn't make sense to her. She was holding one of our eight note board pianos, obviously well worn, and said that this simple little instrument opened up a whole new musical world to her. She said she could now understand and enjoy making music. She looked pretty happy, which made me happy too.
Kalimba Magic is happy to announce the Catania Electric 11-Note Pentatonic Kalimba is available for sale. It comes in a G minor or G major tuning and covers two octaves. You can read more about this cool new kalimba as it is the Kalimba of the Month.
You may also be interested in the Catania 6-Note Pentatonic Kalimba, another new kalimba from Catania Fok Instruments. This one is great for younger kids of all ages.