Interview with Kevin Spears
Electro-Kalimba Pioneer

Kevin Spears
"I really consider myself just a vessel
through whom God will work
in spite of my imperfections." —Kevin Spears

Kalimbaman Kevin Spears is one of the best and most visible kalimba players around. Last year he traveled to Japan to do several kalimba performances. And he is pushing the envelope of what is done on the kalimba with electronic effects and looping. If you would like to get the full Kevin Spears experience, you can purchase his CD at the special price of $13 (and no shipping charge if you hurry!).


Kalimba Magic (KM): Kevin, tell us how you first encountered the kalimba, and what you felt when you realized that this was the instrument you wanted to play.

Kevin Spears (KS): My first experience with kalimba was in 1974. My sister was a huge fan of Earth, Wind and Fire and I remember looking at one of her EWF albums that showed the leader Maurice White sitting with many kalimbas surrounding him. As I listened to the kalimba, I became completely fascinated with this instrument and at some point it became medicine to me.

KM: What has been your most amazing experience with performing on the kalimba?

KS: Wow, there have been many. From having wild animals come very close (almost too close) listening to the kalimba. Another instance happened just two weeks ago, a woman approached me saying when I played "A Mothers Love" she cried because it reminded her of her mother whom, she had just lost 4 months ago. Experiences like this remind us of what we are to use our gifts for.

KM: How many performances do you do a year on the kalimba?

KS: First time I've been asked that question. Last year I performed between 50-60 times including 8 or 9 shows in Japan.

Kevin Spears creates many sounds and textures with kalimba.

KM: How did you get into electronic kalimba playing?

KS: In 2000 I began performing in larger and noisier locations and placing the kalimba under a mic was cumbersome for me personally. So I started recalling many of the experiments I did when I was younger with sound and electronics and settled on using piezo pickups for their wide frequency response, dependability, and that they are economical considering having to electrify several instruments. Thank GOD I did this because it literally opened up an almost hidden world of sounds and textures I had never heard while playing acoustically. In addition, it increased exponentially the things that can be accomplished on kalimba through the use of modern electronics and effects.

KM: When you play songs in concert, how much of what you play is improvised, and how much is pre-determined?

KS: For me it's a mix of both. Most of my songs have a pre-determined rhythm, bass line, chords and melody, but I alternate playing the melody with an improvised solo. For example when I'm using a loop station, I have conditioned myself to think like a band so I will create the rhythm first (since most loop stations quantize rhythmic patterns better). After that I lay the bass line, rhythm guitar part, chords, melody and improvise on top of those parts.

KM: What is the most important thing you can tell aspiring kalimba players around the world about playing the kalimba?

KS: One of the things that had a profound affect on my approach to kalimba is something I was taught long ago which is "There Are No Rules, Just Good Taste." This mantra has given me the freedom to explore and receive the many beautiful yet hidden musical ideas and techniques the CREATOR has put into this exotic instrument.

KM: You often use alternative tunings on your kalimbas. How many different tunings do you routinely use?

KS: Usually 4-5. My philosophy in coming up with tunings has been motivated by several reasons: 1. When I started playing as a child, I had only two kalimbas, so as I would play along to recorded music that I enjoyed, I learned to tune the kalimbas and play by ear. 2. Learning to play by ear allowed me to express what was in my own soul (especially when motivated by joy, frustration, pain, isolation). There is a tremendous difference in expressiveness between playing notes on a sheet of paper versus playing the same song from your heart, in your own way. When I play from the heart, it engages my spirit in the activity which in turn reflects outwardly physically and spiritually. 3. With the Hugh Tracey kalimbas that I've always played having 15-17 notes, I had to figure out a way to be more melodic and expressive with those 15 notes, so I started tuning the individual kalimbas to a specific key (like harmonicas are done) and changing the note progression based on the music I wanted to experience and what was conducive to the voice or resonant tone of the specific kalimba I was tuning.

KM: Do you have a different kalimba for each tuning, or do you retune the same few kalimbas?

KS: Yes, I have a different kalimba for each tuning. I've noticed over the years that retuning kalimbas gradually decreases the reflex action in the spring steel. So once I tune the instrument, I tend to leave it that way. If I want to create a different tuning I will use one of the kalimbas that I have on "standby." I've been fortunate to have fans and friends donate kalimbas knowing I will "give it a better home."

KM: Do you have any tips for the kalimba world about how a kalimba player might discover the right tunings for them?

KS: My advice would be to base it on the music that you love and are moved by. Because I love music from many cultures around the world, my music and tunings reflect those influences. It's funny that you asked that question, last week I was laughing (at myself) because I have a kalimba tuned to A minor but I've been listening to a lot of music that uses the beautiful Egyptian ney (flute). So I wanted to tune a kalimba "quickly" and play along with what I was hearing at the time. So instead of tuning a separate instrument to the Egyptian scale, I took my kalimba tuned to A-minor and tuned the last 5 notes at the top of the scale to the Egyptian scale. When I played the new tuning starting at the lowest note at the bottom center and traveled upward, musically I went from A-minor (VERY BLUESY) to resolving it in an Egyptian scale. It literally sounded like I traveled from the deep south to the heart of Egypt in 3 seconds flat. It first sounded odd but it resolved so beautifully!

KM: As an African American playing an instrument with an African history, you must have a special connection to this instrument - tell us what the kalimba means to you in this context.

KS: Yes, from my initial introduction to kalimba, as an African American I've sensed a deep connection to this instrument and the land from which it comes. Also from a personal standpoint, even as a child, I knew that it was truly meant for me to play kalimba.

As I look at the kalimba, mbira, balaphone and the vast amount of other musical instruments invented in Africa, it speaks to the genius of African inventors and musicians and their contribution to the world of music.

KM: I know a lot of white people are taking a great amount of time to learn traditional African music on the mbira, and are finding much comfort and joy in that ancient music. On the other hand, it seems like many African American kalimba players might look back to Africa, but they don't play traditional African music - it seems like they have jumped aboard a rocket ship and are on their way to the next star system or something. Where are you going on this journey?

KS: Now that's a multi-layered discussion unto itself. It is necessary and beautiful to appreciate, study and preserve the history and traditions of African music and culture as it is with any culture around the world. I consider it a harmonious act when a race or culture of people value and acknowledge the contributions of another culture.

As it pertains to mbira/kalimba, I personally know and acknowledge the profound and unending effect that our African forefathers and mothers have had on the gift given to humanity through the Creator called mbira/kalimba. I also acknowledge that no one (including myself) can play traditional African music with the same fervor, conviction and expression as traditional African musicians do.

In this context, personally I believe in appreciating these traditions and utilizing this rich musical foundation to fulfill my musical destiny while uplifting humanity. Just as explorers have traveled uncharted waters, I too have a deep passion to explore the infinite possibilities and hidden territory, sonically, regarding kalimba. This is the same spirit of exploration that drove Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Moog, Herbie Hancock and many others to expand the capabilities of their respective instruments.

In many ways developing the use of electronics and other tools with kalimba can be compared to electric guitar. For centuries stringed instruments were made and used as a way of musical expression generally in the same way, then around 1931 George Beauchamp and later on Les Paul created new abilities with the guitar, fast forward to today we have made incredible advancements regarding guitars and effects associated with this instrument. I foresee the same progression with the kalimba (although perhaps not on the same scale).

Regarding African-American pursuits with kalimbas/mbiras: In my travels and observations most African-Americans who learn to play a traditional African instrument usually choose the Djembe drum over all of the other traditional African instruments including kalimba/mbira. Because of this, many African-Americans (including myself) learned of the kalimba through the incredible leader Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire. So as a people displaced to America, many African-Americans culturally enjoy the music we grew up listening to, expressing and invented Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Hip-Hop, etc. So of course these influences will be reflected in any instrument that we apply our musical gifts to which I'm a perfect example.

KM: Do you have any new surprises coming up that we should know about?

KS: Yes. I'm always striving to push the envelope regarding what can be accomplished on this amazing instrument. For the past year, I've been perfecting using the kalimba to sound like bass guitar, rock guitar, vocoder effect, complete horn sections, wurlitzer, fender rhodes, and various percussion. So stay tuned for that. We are working on another music project and instructional DVD. Of course you will be the first to know once they are released. We are working on another tour in Japan probably around July 2011.

Mark, I also want to thank you and Kalimba Magic for being the center of the universe on all things kalimba. I appreciate and value having a place to read, share and discuss the beautiful instrument we call kalimba.