Wild Blue Pixel
I have loved the kalimba since the first time I ever laid eyes on one. I was two years old, my brother had just been born, and we were at his newly chosen Godparent's house. I was a handful, and Opal Desch took me aside and showed me this cool little box with metal strips that made wonderful sounds: "Plink, Plink, Plink". "It will be right here on the coffee table, and you can play it ANY TIME you want!" What an effective strategy to keep me out of the way!
Many musical instruments passed through my life: autoharp, recorder, trombone, guitar, piano. I grew up and went off to college. I remember in 1986, shortly after graduating, I was visiting some friends in Cambridge, Massachusets, when someone pulled out a beautiful box with metal tines. "Ah, a kalimba", I said, and I held it and made the sounds "Plink, plink, plink". But ten minutes later, in walked someone I had never seen before, who said "Ah, a KALIMBA!", and in his hands the music box was transformed into an instrument of God, playing the most wonderful and amazing music, as rich and complex and full of light as the master Bach may have played on the instrument. My mind had been blown!
Within a week, I had gone out and bought myself a Kalimba -- a Hugh Tracey Kalimba to be exact. The Hugh Tracey Kalimba is not just the original musical instrument from Africa -- it remains the best kalimba commercially available. I would spend the next 19 years chasing the memory of the greatness of this man who I would never see again. For the first ten years, I would wander in the wilderness, improvising and playing wild random things. But my thumbs got to know the lay of the land pretty well. Then, in 1996, in Boulder Colorado, I wrote my first kalimba song, "First Look Inside". Simple, elegant, but deeply moving and beautiful, this tune would become the centerpiece of my first Kalimba CD, "Two Thumbs Up" in 2000. I remember stopping time at a performance at "Martha's Black Dog" in Socorro, NM. Tim Cornwell got it! The whole audience GOT IT! Even I GOT IT! "First Look Inside" on the kalimba can stop time! Anyway, I liked this tune so much, I put two different versions of it on "Two Thumbs Up". The title "Two Thumbs Up" really refers to that total joy and rightness that came into my heart during and immediately after that performance at Martha's -- it was just SO RIGHT! Two Thumbs Up Right.
By 2000, I was performing kalimba music regularly as part of "Room for Magic", a folk due I had with LaLa (Larry Georgeson). In the summer of 2001, I blew people's minds by performing Joni Mitchell's song "Woodstock" on kalimba, just days before we would all see the bombers riding shotgun in the sky. I was becoming addicted to standing ovations.
I've always liked playing Christmas carols, and this year, I decided to actually work on them and make something really wonderful happen. A few days after I signed up to play at the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association holiday concert, I sat down on a bench, kalimba in one hand, lunch on one side, paper and pen by the other. I forgot to eat lunch that day -- it was as if I was taking dictation for God -- the Christmas songs came one after the other, Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, Oh Holy Night, Go Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, Good King Wensaslas, Emanuel, Away in a Manger, and it goes on and on. After 30 minutes on that bench, all the Christmas songs that were deeply meaningful to me became rolled up into one big medley that told the Christmas story with full emotion and not a word. I knew from that moment that when I performed this music at the TKMA holiday concert, it would be a night that everyone would remember for the rest of their lives.
I worked on that medley every day, and perfected the transitions and emotional fullness and learned to breath joy into the notes and melodies. When that night came, I told the audience that this would be a night they would remember for the rest of their lives, and launched into Jesu and O Holy Night, and the songs just kept coming and coming. The total silence I heard between the notes let me know that I held the audience in my loving hands. In the final strands of "Although its been said, many times, many ways (but never like THIS with a kalimba!), Merry Christmas, Merry CHRISTMAS, MERRY CHRISTMAS, To YOU!" --- I was a marathon runner, crossing the finish line and winning the race on his very first try -- the tears were streaming down my face, people jumped out of their seats, and the standing ovation lasted for three solid minutes! Randy P. would later ask me "Did you make ANY mistakes in that piece?" Well, yes, I played notes I hadn't intended to, but when you make mistakes on the kalimba, you just sort of roll with it. Even the mistakes sound good on this magical instrument. My girlfriend Deb likes to describe that event by saying that I levitated the entire room! I had filled hearts with Joy! People I had never met looked me up and sent me cards telling me that I had to do this MORE. Hey, THIS is what I was meant to do with my life, isn't it!
What happened between Christmas 2002 and now? I seem to have gotten lost or something. I play thirteen different instruments, and usually play in five different bands. Its safe to say that I am usually overcommitted and scattered and moving in 10 different directions in any given minute.
But all that started to change about a year ago. Betty Edwards met me at one of the performances I did, a little thing at Rainbow Guitars I did with Phil Anderson. I played guitar and dulcimer and mandolin and kalimba, and got Betty's e-mail address for the mailing list. The email bounced, but she had also given me her business card. Before throwing it away, I decided I'd give her a call and ask for the correct email address. We talked for an hour. "You know, there isn't ANYBODY out there who does what you do. You should be on television. You should be on 'A Prairie home Companion'. You are so filled with joy when you play the kalimba, its like the Holy Spirit is coming right through your body." Well, of COURSE I should be on television, but there is a big problem of 'How to get from being depressed, moving in 10 different direction, to being devoted to playing kalimba and making music on the TV?'
Betty wouldn't let me go, though. We talk about once a month. She has a unique view of time -- in her mind, I have already succeeded, I am ALREADY on A Prairie Home Companion. "You want to send your kids to college? You'd better play some more kalimba, Mark!"
Around Christmas of 2004, I started teaching kalimba to a few students: Jordan, a young teenager who need something big to latch onto in his life, and Della, who I met at a wedding reception I was playing at. I felt that both of these students really wanted to learn the kalimba and had a deep heart connection to the instrument. It was so cool that these people wanted to learn what I had to teach. I replied to their desire by inventing a new form of Kalimba Tablature -- something simple, graphical, intuitive, that I could leave in their hands at the end of the lesson, and they could go other the music on their own. I decided that I needed to write a book on how to play kalimba. There weren't any good books out there, perhaps this would get more people playing.
And then, one morning while pouring milk into my coffee, a waking vision filled my head and heart: a vision that I could be the ambassador from the Kalimba to the World! A vision of one million people, making joy in their hearts and peace on earth.
But the really BIG kick came in June of 2005. I just got back from IMYM, a week-long Quaker retreat at Ghost Ranch, and I look at an e-mail marked "SPAM", and before deleting it, I notice the subject line is marked "Maestro!". Do I know this guy? If not, perhaps I WANT to....
The message was from Christian Carver, the director of AMI, African Musical Instruments, in Grahamstown, South Africa. If Paul Harvey were telling this story, he would stretch it out: "AMI, the maker of the.... Hugh.... Tracey... Kalimba! The instrument Mark had been playing since 1986, the instrument he had first seen when he was 2 years old! And NOW, you know.... the REST of the Story! Paul Harvey, Good DAY!" Time stopped as I read these words. Someone had sent a copy of my Kalimba CD, "Two Thumbs Up", to AMI, and it had migrated to the director's desk, and he LOVED IT! "I have no idea why nobody has pointed me in your direction yet. I am blown away by what you are doing with [the Hugh Tracey Kalimba]!". Deep down, I knew I was one of the best kalimba players in the world, and now the maker of the Hugh Tracey Kalimba knew it too! It turns out that AMI had lost their distributor in the US, and sales were low world wide. If kalimba sales didn't improve, AMI might need to end kalimba production (their marimbas are selling quite well in Africa, and at this point, the kalimba is just a sideline; but remember, AMI was founded in 1965 to spread the kalimba through the world). Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to help sell the Hugh Tracey kalimba. It was a no brainer. This is what I was born to do, and I will do it with all my spirit and wisdom and love and joy.
The kalimba story continues to unfold day by day. It is my spiritual journey, the path that I am on. It is a rocket that has lifted off of the pad and is just now beginning to overcome the force of gravity, but its destiny is to break free of all bonds, and to fly beyond all dreams.
The Kalimba Story is a 75 minute piece of performance art, a mixture of engaging story telling, kalimba music, and magic which delights the listener. Performances of the kalimba story end with a "Kalimba Tupperware Party", where the audience members become participants, sampling the kalimbas, the books, and the CD's. Typically, one of every five people who hears the kalimba story performance buys a kalimba and a book. More buy CD's. But everyone comes away with joy and enthusiasm and encouraging words about the kalimba. Whether you buy something or not, you hear the wonder, and you sense the wave of this growing phenomenon that is touching people's hearts.
If you are interested in getting a performance of The Kalimba Story, contact me.