8th Street Music Unearths Vintage 1968 HT Kalimba Unpacking its Messages

Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba, c. 1968.

One of the music stores that I ship Hugh Tracey Kalimbas to, 8th Street Music in Pennsauken, NJ, recently unearthed a real gem: a mint condition Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba, with the five bicycle spoke screws on the back and the 1968 16-page instructional manual, in the original Creative Playthings box.

This is a piece of history, and I will do my best to unpack the messages it has for us.

African Musical Instruments (AMI) first incorporated in 1954. Based on personal interviews, I was under the impression that the original kalimba design from 1954, with the five screws on the back (attached to five hooks that hold an "L-shaped" pressure bar down) was discontinued in the early 1960s. The presence of the famous 1968 manual with the kalimba with the screws indicates otherwise - this design persisted at least until then.

The insert included in the c. 1968 Treble kalimba.

By the way, just because there is a copyright date of 1968 doesn't really mean that the kalimba is really that old. The Hugh Tracey insert, with the notes of each tine listed, on this kalimba says "copyright 1966" - but so do the kalimba inserts that come with the kalimbas I've been selling since 2006.

The insert included in the 2011 Treble kalimba, which also says "copyright 1966."

Careful reading of the manual reveals mention of the Alto kalimba in two places - that is, the Alto kalimba existed before 1968, presumably with the five screw design. I have seen about 15 of the Treble kalimbas with the five screws (people send them in to the Kalimba Doctor to be fixed up, and I own one), but I have just seen one Alto Kalimba with the five screws on the back - just a few months ago. I presume that in the 1960s, the Alto was not nearly as popular as the Treble - the musical "Wait a Minim" used the Treble, and Paul and Andrew Tracey prefered the Treble to the Alto. Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire used the Treble. But today, I sell 5 times as many Alto kalimbas as Trebles, so the trend has flipped.

Of particular interest to me, this kalimba which has been in its box for about 43 years was in almost perfect relative tuning. The bridge had slipped down a fraction of a millimeter, and the tines are all about 30 cents sharp. Presumably the kalimba experienced a jolt, perhaps in mailing or in moving around in the shop.

The physical dimensions of the 1968 Treble Kalimba and a 2011 Treble Kalimba are essentially identical. (Note that as the kalimba boxes are hand assembled and sanded, there will be minor variations from one to another made on the same day.) The one dimension that I can see that has changed is the thickness of the face wood, from 3mm on the 1968 Treble up to 5mm on the 2011 Treble. Why? Cracked face wood is probably the most common defect of an aging kalimba, especially if it has been subject to excessive heat or low humidity conditions, and the thicker face wood is stronger and less likely to crack. (By the way, the 1968 kalimba shows no signs of cracks or weakness.)

Left: c 1968 Treble, Right: 2011 Treble.

The kiaat wood is still beautiful as ever. Part of the back wood shows the blond sap wood. I can clearly see sanding marks on the face and back wood, indicating that the worker who made this one didn't use very fine sand paper. It shows no signs of being played or wear on the wood.

Left: 1968 Treble, Right: 2011 Treble.

I have noticed, especially on older Alto kalimbas, that the vibrato holes and sound holes have not always been put in the same places! The 1968 Treble has its front sound hole 1.2 cm lower (away from the tines) than the 2011 Treble. The 1968 Treble's back vibrato holes are 0.7 cm lower than the 2011 Treble's holes. Also, the vibrato holes on the back of the 1968 Treble taper out to 1.5 cm at the outside of the wood, and are 1.0 cm at the inside of the box. Modern vibrato holes are a constant 1.0 cm through the back wood.

The box and instructional manual for the c. 1968 kalimba.

Also of particular interest is the box. The kalimba came in the white box that was standard in the 1960s, but on the left and right sides were the words and logo for CREATIVE PLAYTHINGS, one of the first companies to import the Hugh Tracey kalimba in bulk. Paul Tracey relates the story of his father Hugh Tracey speaking with the CEO of Creative Playthings who looked at the Treble kalimba and said in an offhanded way "Oh, I'll take 10,000 of them!" That is approximately the number of kalimbas that Kalimba Magic has sold in its 6 years of existence. (By the way, don't miss the 6 year Kalimba Magic anniversary sale going on Nov 18-25, 2011.)

What about the price? This kalimba box had the original price sticker on it. It was very faded, but you can clearly see $19.95! Today, this kalimba sells for $130 (that would be without the electronic pickup). Let's see, from 1968 to 2011 is 43 years. This price hike of a factor of 6.5 over 43 years can be accounted for by an annual price increase of 4.4%. We can compare this number to inflation. In the US, inflation over the last 40 years has averaged about 4.7%, while South Africa has experienced more like 10% annual inflation. In other words, $130 today is a bargain for something made in South Africa that cost $19.95 in 1968.

And finally: how does the sound of the 1968 Treble Kalimba compare to the sound of the 2011 Treble Kalimba? I found it to be absolutely remarkable that I could take this old kalimba out of the box and it sounded warm and friendly - like what I say kalimbas sound like after they've been loved and played for months or years. But don't take it from me! I invite you to listen to a side by side comparison of the old and the new Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimbas.

Now, when you get a kalimba, you probably want a really nice clean one, not some old rusty thing. But the existence of this mint-condition c 1968 Treble Kalimba indicates that those old old kalimbas you see on eBay might very well be worth every dollar you pay for them. (Actually, my very favorite kalimba of all was an old Hugh Tracey Treble, probably from the same era as this one here - with the same label and the wider vibrato holes on the back - purchased on eBay for about $60. What a deal!)

More items of interest concerning the instructional manual:

Of course, there were Hugh Tracey kalimbas before 1968. Here are two features of older kalimbas (but I can only guess at how much older) - some very old ones have a back label with black lettering on a gold background in addition to the five screws on the back. Also, the very oldest kalimba' tines are rounded on the playing ends, but were cut straight on the opposite side.