Interview with Peter Hokema
Inventor of the Sansula

Peter Hokema
Peter Hokema and Sansula

Peter Hokema is a folk musician and musical instrument inventor from Germany. He is best known for the invention of the Sansula, a small kalimba with an enchanting tuning mounted on a small frame drum with a thin membrane that makes out-of-this-world wah wah sounds.

By the way, the Hugh Tracey kalimbas have three sound holes which, when covered and uncovered, make the wah wah effect, but only on about 1/4 of the notes. This design is actually based on a traditional African kalimba idea, and optimized by Hugh Tracey. Peter's Sansula design extends the wah wah effect to all the notes on the instrument. While the design is totally different from the traditional African design, the sound and the idea follow from the African tradition.

Peter Hokema studied classical violin in the 70s, and later in the 90s he studied jazz violin in the Netherlands, so music is his original profession, and he still plays a number of gigs every year. Lately, Peter has been playing the mandolin. In the last 10 years Peter has concentrated more and more on the American folk styles like bluegrass and oldtime music:

"Improvisation was always one of the most important things for me in the music. I sometimes use the Sansula in a band where we improvise some kind of world music or world jazz."
- Peter Hokema

And it is fitting that Peter creates instruments that allow people with little or no previous musical experience to improvise freely and beautifully! Thank you, Peter Hokema, for this gift to the world.

KM: Peter, when and how did you come up with the idea of mounting a kalimba on a frame drum to make the Sansula?

PH: This is a simple story. One day I accidentally left a little kalimba with a solid body like our B5 model on a drum. I played on it while it was laying on the drum head and so I discovered the Sansula sound. The rest was a lot of searching for solutions in design and production development.

By the way, the name creation Sansula is a mixture of the two words: Sansa (one of the African words for kalimba) and the ending of Marimbula (the bass kalimba played in the Caribbean).

KM: Did you know right away that this would be the main path for the rest of your life?

PH: When I first heard the sound of a kalimba amplified by a drumhead, I knew that this was the idea of my life. All my friends and my wife too were a little bit skeptical but I was sure from the beginning, that the Sansula would become a very successful product. The company Hokema did exist already since 1987, and we built kalimbas from the beginning on. But also other simple instruments for people who donīt have any musical education and like just to play music. We built xylophones, Psaltry, chimes, diverse percussion instruments and completely new inventions of instruments and sold them in the beginning on the free market, later on handcrafters' bazaars and so on.

KM: While the Sansula and Hokema kalimbas are among the most expensive available, they are certainly very high quality...

PH: In the early days we built very small series of 5 or 10 instruments at a time. The quality thing was always very important. Today we work with 7 people and our series have become bigger but everybody in our company is very motivated to keep the high quality level.

KM: How did you get interested in the kalimbas in the first place?

PH: The first kalimba I ever had in my hands was a Hugh Tracey, a Treble I think. This was in the seventies. I was fascinated from the beginning on. The sound and the rhythmical way of playing with the two thumbs was completely new for me. Not very far from that time I started building instruments myself. My first kalimba had tines made of bamboo, because I didnīt know where I could get the right steel material.

KM: A very rich turnaround indeed! The first African kalimbas were made some 3000 years ago with bamboo tines, and I believe in the 60s or 70s the Hugh Tracey Kalimbas were made from German spring steel. (Now the spring steel for the Hugh Tracey kalimbas is manufactured in South Africa.)

I have noticed the similarity between the traditional African instrument known as the mbira nyunga nyunga or the karimba, and the Sansula. I have speculated that you had held one of those instruments in your hands before you made the Sansula. Is that true, or did you create an instrument tuning and note layout so similar to the karimba independently?

PH: Yes, I'd seen the karimba before and also African mbiras with the tines in two rows. Before the Sansula we had built our Klassik model with a single row of tines, and I wanted to make something different. I liked the possibility (opportunity?) of having low tines next to high tines, because of sound and the completely different patterns that come into your fingers when you play. I'm not sure about the tuning.

KM: Well, the tunings are not identical. If you tune the African intervals on the karimba to the nearest Western minor intervals, the core 4 notes - A, C, E, A - are the same and in the same order on both the karimba and the Sansula. Also, there are a number of adjacent tines on both instruments that play in octaves. They are similar enough so that they feel like related instruments, but I don't think any 1000-year-old Shona people are going to sue you for copyright infringement. On the other hand, the Meinl people have copied your Sansula tuning note for note, which I think is clearly unoriginal and even shameful.

KM: Tell us what you have learned about integrating the Sansula into a band.

PH: My work as a kalimba manufacturer doesnīt leave me too much time, so the music became just a smaller part of my life in the last years. But I still have some different projects where I play gigs sometimes. One is Bluegrass/ Oldtime, another is music from different parts of the world like Eastern Europe, France, Ireland, South America mixed with Jazz. Thatīs the band where I sometimes use the Sansula. I donīt know how I integrate it, I just improvise. We try to leave much space for the Sansula in the music, everybody in the band plays as little as possible

Olaf Plotz & Peter Hokema - Sansula Duet using the Playtable

I mostly play the Sansula on a plate of coated plywood, where I can get a very intensive wah wah effect on. Amplification with a microphone - a pickup won't amplify the wah wah effect. This plate - I call it a 'Playtable' - can be mounted on a microphone stand, a camera stand for playing while you are sitting and for the use with a strap to play while you are standing or walking and do the wah wah anyway. The Playtable is a new product of ours and will be available soon.

KM: What about alternative Sansula tunings?

PH: We have a few examples for alternate tunings on our website and the customer can choose and we can make a custom made tuning for him. This takes a week of waiting because we don't have them in stock. I invented some nice new tunings for the Sansula in the last weeks that I will publish soon.

Kalimba Magic is proud to carry the full line of Hokema Sansulas and Kalimbas, along with our ground breaking Sansula book.