A cool custom tuning – and live looping!

Only at Kalimba Magic

This kalimba grew out of a beloved customer’s imagination and my interpretive kalimba skills

This kalimba started life as a standard Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba with pickup, in standard G tuning. What is it now, and how did it get there?

Let’s start with “How did this kalimba get to be this way?” This kalimba setup and tuning are the result of a series of requests from one of my repeat kalimba customers, Dajari Makena. He and I have collaborated developing great tunings. He wanted half the tines bent upward. He wanted a unique D minor tuning. He wanted something that reflected Africa. He wanted treble tines on the upper row. And he wanted a special paint job.

Yes, it took a bit of fiddling with, but when this kalimba was born from the imagination of a beloved client and my own interpretative tuning, I was so struck by it that I had to share it with you.


Custom Kalimba Tuning and Setup

Here is an important thing to get before we go any deeper:

Kalimba Magic will do custom tunings and custom paint jobs. We do not build kalimbas from scratch, but we are adept at reorganizing, rebuilding, retuning, and setting up your dream kalimba. 

About This Tuning

Most western kalimbas maintain the same scale over the range of the instrument. African kalimbas, on the other hand, often had idiosyncratic scales that did not necessarily stay the same in the upper reaches and the lower reaches of the instrument. That is what I wanted to do.

I started out by setting up the lower-row tines of this kalimba in the D minor pentatonic scale, but with a low note of A, the 5th. Why? Generally, the root note is also the low note on a kalimba… but that is not true of most other instruments in the world. The client requested that his kalimba have an Alto body, and be in the key of D. This presented a problem. The lowest tine on the Alto kalimba is usually G (that is, both the kalimba body and the longest tine are designed to play a good low G). I could not have tuned the G all the way down to the lower D – the tine is not long enough, nor is the wood box big enough to resonate at the low D. I could have tuned that lowest tine up to D… but that would have shifted the whole kalimba up to notes too high to sound good. But a low note of A, just one step higher than the intended G, is no problem. And A is the 5th of the D scale, which acts as an excellent “springboard note” that sends you back to the root note, D.

Exotic Tuning Rule of Thumb: If you can’t have the root note on the lowest tine, try putting the 5th on the lowest tine. Two of SaReGaMa’s famous tunings are set up like that.

I decided I wanted the upper row and lower row to sort of inhabit different sonic universes, but I also wanted them to work together. The upper-row tines follow an Egyptian scale, which has a few more notes than most scales – it is partially chromatic, and it has a minor 2nd, and both a minor 3rd and a major 3rd, and a 4th. If you play all of the upper-row notes in sequence, it is quite Egyptian sounding. If you decide to skip one of the 3rds for a while, you can make the scale sound either major or minor.

In summary: I set up the lower-row notes to be a fairly simple minor pentatonic scale – simple like Native American Flute is simple, in a soulful and ethnic way. And the upper-row notes make a really hot ethnic scale with several options for different sonic shadings.

With Two Rows of Tines, This Is An Obvious Instrument to Loop

The lower-row notes, which make the D minor pentatonic scale, are good solid notes on which to base a loop. So, I imagined laying down a loop constructed on a basic lower-row melody, and then to overlay more intricate decoration melodies drawn mostly from the upper-row notes. I decided to document the utility of this exotic tuning with a video of me doing live looping. That video is in the media box below, and it should have started playing when you opened this page.

I will start by saying that most of my looping work is “continuous beat looping.” I just made that up, so if you have never heard of it, don’t worry. It just means that, like traditional kalimba music, the phrases blend in from one to the next, seemlessly. When attempting a “continuous beat loop,” if I make a slight timing error in opening or closing the loop with my foot stomps, there will be a timing glitch which will range from just annoying, to devastating, for the looped music. It really pays to practice getting your foot stomps very precise.

Looping rules of thumb: Traditional kalimba music is already like a loop, so looping kalimba is a deep and good thing. And it really pays to get good at precisely stomping in and out of a loop.

I start out practicing a rhythmic kalimba tapping for four seconds, and then capturing just two seconds of the kalimba tapping in LOOP1 of my Ditto X4 Looper. In this versatile looper, LOOP1 and LOOP2 are totally independent loops. They can be different lengths, and they can either be played back simultaneously or sequentially. I put 2 seconds of rhythm in to LOOP1, and I play the rhythm back simultaneously with a much longer LOOP2, which I populate with kalimba sounds. Having this very short rhythmic loop in LOOP1 will help keep me in tempo as I create the music for the longer LOOP2.

I do not have a complete “division of labor” between the two rows of kalimba tines – for example, my initial riff uses two notes from the lower row and two notes from the upper row. I play through that initial riff between 0:08 and 0:15… and in it I played some things that I wasn’t happy with, but I also saw how to change the riff to improve it. So the second time around, between 0:15 to 0:23, I play the corrected riff and capture it in LOOP2. Note that LOOP2 is four times as long as LOOP1. The two loops also have their own independent volume controls, which I have set up prior to the video. 

After I capture that initial riff in the looper, I immediately layer on top of it a fast, improvised flourish using only upper-row notes, at 0:23 – 0:38 in the video. I do not capture the upper row flourish in the loop, because it is very busy, and I don’t want to try to play against that. Be very judicious about what you let into your loop, as it is easy to overburden the loop with too many notes that don’t make sense together.

You might want to capture simple, clear riffs in the looper, but don’t capture extremely busy playing in the looper, as that is more difficult to play with when you play the loop back.

The time scale of this video points to something: live looping is often a speed sport. Why? Because people have short attention spans, and you need to make some interesting things happen quickly.

In just the first 38 seconds of the video, I have:

  • practiced the rhythm part
  • captured the rhythm part
  • practiced the initial riff
  • corrected and captured the initial riff
  • and improvised a flurry of cool high notes.

Next in the video, I switch back to the lower-row notes, first practicing a two-note harmony part between 0:38 and 0:46, and then capturing it and layer it onto LOOP2 at 0:47 – 0:54. However, I do not close the loop at 0:54, but start going crazy on the upper notes again, layering all of that onto LOOP2.

When you get crazy and play lots of notes and put them into the loop, you are destined for confusion and overplaying and possibly noise and nonmusicality. However, I just push ESCAPE and end the song with a three-note kalimba chord and by stomping on the STOP button, I immediately end the playing of both loops. (In sequential play mode, STOP will not take affect until the currently playing loop is finished, which is very handy for playing a song with two different parts.)

So – I love looping, I especially love my new DITTO X4 looper, and the traditional African two-row karimba instrument design really lends itself to looping. At the very least, it gives you one big idea that can be used as an organizing principle in your looping. Believe me – when you are in the heat of the moment, conceptualizing a complex 15-note kalimba as two instruments with 7 and 8 notes each can be the sort of simplifying assumption that transforms a player from being frozen with too many possibilities to having a concrete, simple, and highly musical plan.

Expect more!

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