Sept. 7, 2014

Vol. 9, Num. 1

Kalimba Magic NEWS

How the Hugh Tracey Kalimba Got Its Name
Andrew Tracey Recounts a Little History

Andrew Tracey
Andrew Tracey

Andrew Tracey, eldest son to Hugh Tracey, ran the International Library of African Music (ILAM) from 1977 through 2005. In this article, Andrew gives us a little background history to the development of the Hugh Tracey Kalimba.

I'm sometimes asked why my father, the late Hugh Tracey, named the instrument that he designed the "kalimba" and not "mbira" - or any other name.

People also wonder about the relationship between the original kalimbas of the Zambezi Valley region and the Hugh Tracey Kalimbas sold by AMI (African Musical Instruments).

Hugh Tracey playing kalimba
Hugh Tracey

There are several hundred traditional names for the lamellophone family of musical instruments in Africa. Kalimba or karimba in some languages such as Shona are just two of them, used in a wide region of the Zambezi Valley, including parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi.

When my father first created his new instrument in about 1955, he thought of inventing a new name for it, but then decided that, as it was really an African instrument, it should have an African name. (Some of the new names suggested were awful, like "twangalele"!)

The kalimba was one of the lamellophones that he had been recording. This name is attractive and easier to pronounce than mbira ("em-BEER-a") - so he chose "kalimba".

Hugh Tracey playing kalimba
Map of the Zambezi Valley

He did not choose this name because his new kalimba and the original kalimba are the same instrument. They are both African-style lamellophones, but they are different. He didn't expect this to be confusing. At that date, he could not have known that the whole study of the mbira family in Zimbabwe would expand as it has today. The kalimba/karimba then was an unknown instrument outside its home in the Zambezi Valley region. Furthermore, he could not even have imagined that his "kalimba" would still be made and played 60 years later!

But if he had known, he would have been immensely pleased to have been part of the extraordinary expansion around the world of knowledge about African lamellophones. This aim of his had been growing since his first experience of mbira in 1921, when he first encountered these intriguing instruments in Zimbabwe. He believed it was such an important, and unknown, instrument that the world should know about it.

His next question was: How should it be tuned? If he had chosen any of the many traditional lamellophone tunings or note arrangements on the keyboard, his instrument would have been nearly incomprehensible to anyone outside the Zambezi region who had no experience of that traditional music.

So, using an idea from the central African likembe lamellophone, he tuned the kalimba to a major scale, with the notes alternating on left and right sides of the keyboard. This enabled westerners to play familiar western music on it, and also add some diatonic harmony.

Alto Kalimba Tuning
Tuning of Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba

It is in this form that the Hugh Tracey Kalimba has been made and become known, especially in the USA. Its popularity has been shown by the many imitations of it that have appeared over the years.

This instrument enabled my father personally to survive during many long years of running ILAM (the International Library of African Music) without receiving any income from his research.

The ILAM funding situation worsened after my father's passing in 1977, as the apartheid government caused the increasing isolation of South Africa. In order to keep ILAM going, I was forced to move it to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, which provided infrastructure and funding for research.

When I moved ILAM and AMI (the firm which makes the Hugh Tracy Kalimba) to Grahamstown in 1978, sales of the kalimba had diminished to a low level after the burst of interest it had aroused in the 1960s. It was then that I introduced the other African instruments, which AMI still makes, particularly the xylophone family. These are now the mainstay of the firm, but kalimba sales are still holding their own.

In the 1980s I also introduced a Hugh Tracey Karimba which has the same tuning as the original Zambezi Valley instrument, for those people who want to play in the original African style. (The name mbira nyunga nyunga is now also used for the same type of lamellophone introduced by Dumi Maraire, the great Shona musician.)


Andrew Tracey is the oldest son of Hugh Tracey who was the founder of the International Library of African Music and creator of the Hugh Tracey Kalimba. To learn more about the Tracey family's experience with recording, preserving and experimenting with African instruments, read the 2008 Kalimba Magic interview with Andrew Tracey, or read Mark Holdaway's article on Andrew Tracey on Wikipedia.

Top of page

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

Check out our past newsletters in
The Kalimba Magic Newsletter Archives

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

Shop for kalimbas and accessories at
The KALIMBA MAGIC SHOP