History of the Hugh Tracey Kalimba

Last month, our Kalimbas Day article featured the history of how the kalimba came to the New World. The first kalimba that a modern day American would encounter would more than likely be the Hugh Tracey kalimba. Hugh and the Hugh Tracey kalimba were responsible for the Kalimba Craze of the 60's. Here is a short account of Hugh Tracey's life with the kalimba.

Hugh Tracey
Hugh Tracey spent much of his life making
field recordings of traditional African music.

Hugh had been traveling about Africa since the 1920s, studying, documenting, and recording traditional instruments and music. He recognized the genius of African instrument design - he realized everything was done for a purpose. Decades worth of design features from the different kalimbas he encountered finally came together around 1950 when Hugh Tracey started to make prototype kalimbas in his workshop at Saronde, South Africa.

After making over a hundred different prototypes, Hugh incorporated the company African Musical Instruments (AMI) in 1954. By the early 1960s, fueled by his lecture tours in America and Europe as well as the world-wide success of the musical revue, "Wait a Minim," which had been written by sons Andrew and Paul Tracey and featured several African instruments, the kalimba started to catch on. Frank Kaplan of the natural materials toys company Creative Playthings of Princeton, NJ, ordered 10,000 Hugh Tracey Kalimbas in one go (Kalimba Magic has sold close to 10,000 Hugh Tracey Kalimbas over five years). Paul Tracey was put in charge of overseeing production of the kalimbas at the new workshop.

Many people who bought their kalimbas in the U.S. in the 60s and early 70s found their Hugh Tracey in the toy department due to the Creative Playthings connection. However, when top name musicians such as Taj Majal and Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire started performing on the Hugh Tracey kalimba, the instrument broke through to a whole new level. Not a toy - a real instrument.

Of course, with the success of the Hugh Tracey kalimba came imitators. Hugh Tracey himself was an imitator of the plethora of traditional African instruments he had studied for years, but he brought much to the instrument, experimenting with different woods and other materials, determining the optimal dimensions of the instrument, and many other details. Perhaps the most important design decision Hugh Tracey made was about note layout and tuning. Hugh adopted the note layout of one particular traditional African thumb piano that had strictly left-right alternating notes in a scale, plus a single long drone tine on the far right side. Hugh left off the long drone, and realized that if you tuned the tines to the western major scale, harmonies in 3rds magically popped out of the instrument when adjacent tines were played simultaneously.

Hugh Tracey's kalimba design was almost immediately copied all over the world. The alternating note layout was intuitive, the building materials were inexpensive, the manufacturing technology was simple. Anyone could build a kalimba, and they copied the Hugh Tracey design, especially the alternating note layout, which is present in most kalimbas you will find on the market today (the Sansula, modeled after the African mbira nyunga nyunga or karimba, and the 2B kalimbas modeled after the Sansula, are notable exceptions). In fact, the alternating note design is now made in parts of Africa where there was no tradition for this note layout, and the kalimbas are sold to the US and around the world.

By the way, thousands of Hugh Tracey's field recordings have been digitized and are available at the South African Music Archive Project for free. You can even hear Hugh Tracey explaining his new Hugh Tracey Kalimba on an ILAM record.


Click to go to Kalimba Magic
Top of page

To sign up to receive the monthly Kalimba Magic newsletter by email,
enter your email address below:

The Kalimba Magic Newsletter Archives

Discover the world of kalimbas at http://www.kalimbamagic.com

Shop for kalimbas and accessories at