A New Pentatonic Tuning from 1970’s Africa: F7 Bebey

Francis Bebey used this tuning in his song “Breaths” – what a great tuning!

Click to go to Video of This Kalimba

Someone called a few months back. His wife had recently died, and he was working on healing from that great loss. He had played mbira dzavadzimu in the past – and since the mbira is all about helping us to connect with the ancestral spirits, I figured he wanted some help with that.

But instead of being drawn to mbira music, this man was drawn to the song “Breaths”, written by Francis Bebey, with lyrics focusing on how our ancestors live on in the physical world around us. For a bit of background, Francis Bebey was a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and kalimba player from Cameroon. Remember, Cameroon is close to the original birthplace of the kalimba – Gerhard Kubik (Austrian ethnologist famous for his African music study and collections) asserts that bamboo-type kalimbas originated there about 3000 years ago, and they are still made there today.

The bereaved caller wanted to learn to play “Breaths”, and the first thing he needed was to know which kalimba it could be played on and in what tuning. So I began some research to give him an answer.

With detailed listening, I discovered that Francis Bebey used a simple pentatonic scale, but it was one that I had not encountered before. And upon jamming with this tuning, I immediately decided to share it with the world, because it really is cool and African and funky. Watch the video “Floaty Kalimba” and see if you’re not won over!


What makes this tuning so extraordinary?

The tuning of this kalimba is unique unto itself. For starters, the “root note” – i.e., the note with the same name as the key this kalimba plays in, indicated by the “1” in the diagram above, is not at the bottom of the kalimba. The longest tine is the lowest note, and it is A, the 3rd of the F scale. Furthermore, the highest note is C, which is also not the root note, but the 5th of the F scale. (By the way, if this sounds familiar, the low note on the Hugh Tracey Treble is the 3rd, and the top note of the Hugh Tracey Treble is the 5th – but I think this is coincidental.)

Usually, the root note falls on the lowest note on the kalimba, and often on the highest note. Why? This helps you get your bearing right away when you play, and it is super easy to jump back to the root if it just happens to be the lowest and the highest notes – two of the most prominent and easy-to-get-to tines on the kalimba. So this kalimba is very different.

Next, the high note SHOULD be A if we follow the pattern of the scale all the way through the tuning. Instead the high note is C, skipping straight over the A. You will really hear that high C in the video – you can see me playing the far right tine. Its timbre is a bit more nasal than the lower tines, and it just cuts right through the background.

The fact that this tuning does not begin or end with the root note means it is playing hide and seek with us. It seems like it’s trying to fool us. It requires that we learn a bit more about this tuning, and that we think a bit more about how to play it.

Except for the two mentioned major exceptions, this tuning is almost like the regular major pentatonic scale. What makes it different is the “flat 7th”, designated by the “7-“. What is a flat 7th? Sing “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do”. The “Ti” is the 7th note of the scale, and is so very close to that top note Do. To sing the flat 7th, first call it “Te” (“tay”) instead of “Ti”, and next make it closer to La and farther from Do. And belt it out, because the flat 7th is all about attitude!

And THAT is what the flat 7th, or Eb in this key, gives to this tuning: attitude. Before getting to the Eb, the tuning is happy, it is boppy and free and fun, but then WHAM! Instant attitude when you hit the Eb!

I really enjoy this tuning; it offers different melodies and harmonies, makes it easier to play ethnic sounding music with a primal feel. On this kalimba it is easy to run free, to soar with its unique capabilities.

To try to show the world what this kalimba tuning is all about, I have made the video below – “Floaty Kalimba”. To me, the music just seems to hover in the air. You can also get the backing track I made for “Floaty Kalimba” as a free download below.

Mark Holdaway jamming out on the F7 Bebey-tuned Pentatonic Kalimba.

Free Download: MP3 of the F7 Bebey video’s backing track

We are launching a series of TIPS that will address how to find your way around a new tuning, and some of those tips will deal with this tuning.

Tip series on Exotic Pentatonic Tunings

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