Thursday, February 18, 2010
The Primal Karimba
Bunga Utete on Karimba

This February, in conjunction with Black History Month, we celebrate the African Karimba, or mbira nyunga nyunga.

While the buzzers are traditional, I think this is probably a non-traditional use of the buzzers.

I learned this tune from the back of Paul F. Berliner's book The Soul of Mbira. He lists five or six variations. When you play traditional karimba songs such as this one, you start with the basic melody and repeat it several times. This basic melody is usually played with just the lower row of tines, which are thought to be the notes which were present on the first metal-tined kalimbas.

After playing a variation about four times, you progress to the next variation. I like to imagine that each of these variations was written by great players of different generations, and traveling through the variations is like traveling through time - first forward in time with increasingly complex variations, and then as the song winds down, travel back in time through the simpler variations until we end on the part that we started with, the heart of the song.

The basic variation lays out the chord progression of the song, and all subsequent variations work within that chord progression. Some of the variations in this recording are my own, and you can make your own variations as well. And if we ever make a really awesome variation, maybe karimba players 100 years from now will play one of our variations when they play this song.

This particular tune is written in F# minor, the relative minor to the more common root note of A. Using the relative minor is a western concept, but obviously it exists in African music as well. The more I learn about traditional African music, the more I realize how advanced it was and how similar it was to western music in many ways.