Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The Wah Wah Effect :
On the Origin of the Wah Wah Sound Hole

When I give a demonstration on the kalimba, I tell people that the wah wah SOUNDS like a 20th century electronic effect - like a synthesizer or a wah-wah pedal - but that it is actually 1000 year old African technology. This is probably stretching the truth. The kalimbas were first made more than 1000 years ago, but did they have sound holes? Most African kalimbas were probably made out of solid wooden boards, which do not have the wah wah effect.

The Hugh Tracey kalimbas were first made in the late 1950s, and they came with the sound hole. I presume that Hugh Tracey, who had traveled across Africa for years studying traditional musical instruments and recording various kinds of thumb pianos, saw one or more kalimbas with sound holes, and he got the idea from these instruments.

I myself have seen a kalimba owned by one Edward Newman, now in his eighties, which predated Hugh Tracey's commercial kalimbas and had a sound hole. It was made from a single piece of wood, but at the foot of the kalimba wood, it had been hollowed out, and there was a sound hole right about where the kalimba would touch your belly button while you play it. You can get a wah wah on this kalimba by bringing it closer to your belly. Mr. Newman traded a leather jacket for this kalimba in the early 1950s when he traveled through Africa, and I was able to see and play this instrument in December 2005. It sounded remarkably similar to the modern day Hugh Tracey kalimba.