These eight steps should keep your kalimba sounding happy for many years
Customer Samuel asks: “What are the most important things for me to know about keeping my kalimba happy?”
I think the most important thing is to not mistreat your kalimba. Don’t drop your kalimba on the ground. Don’t put things on top of your kalimba. Don’t sit on your kalimba. Don’t leave your kalimba in a hot car. Don’t spill juice or soda on your kalimba, and don’t let your kalimba get wet.
But what else do you need to know about keeping your kalimba happy?
I have an embarrassingly large number of kalimbas in my house. Yes, most of them are in stock and will eventually be bought by people like you and sent all around the world. But many have found their way into my personal collection. In that collection, I have two rather old Hugh Tracey kalimbas, one from the 1970s and the other from the 1980s. I have played each for thousands of hours, and I hope to play them for thousands more. But I do have to take a bit of care to keep them happy.
First, let me address some of the hazzards I mentioned above:
1) Don’t drop your kalimba on the ground. While the new Chinese kalimbas have the wood bridge glued to the face wood, the Hugh Tracey Kalimba’s bridge is held in place by friction resulting from the tines pressing down on the bridge. When you drop a Hugh Tracey Kalimba, a shock wave travels upward through the kalimba body, upward through the bridge, and then forcing the tines to jump up off the bridge for just an instant. In that fraction of a second, the tines are not pushing down on the bridge to hold it in place… and the bridge will slip out and away from the slotted “z” bracket which holds the tines down. This results in the vibrating length of the tines being shorter, which will make your kaimba go systematically out of tune (sharp). Of course, the other danger in dropping your kalimba is that you could damage the wood. (I have dropped one of my old kalimbas numerous times, and while I have always addressed the tuning issues, I have not addressed the worn corners that are a result of its falls.)
2) Don’t leave your kalimba in a hot car. The wood will dry out from the heat. The heat can also damage the wood and result in cracking. Would you leave your baby in a hot car? No!
3) Don’t let your kalimba get wet. Water can cause the tines to rust and can damage the wood. But it gets worse. One customer complained that six of their notes had suddenly gone dead, and they had no idea why. They sent their disabled kalimba to me, and I took the kalimba apart. I could see dried, sticky goo under the tines, basically gluing the tines to the bridge, preventing them from ringing clearly. I suspect Pepsi spilled on the kalimba tines. It was easy for me to clean the tines and reassemble the kalimba, and it ended up sounding great again. By the way, I knew exactly what to do, because I had once spilled grapefruit juice on my kalimba. While I dried it off right away, a bit of sugar water had gotten between the tines and the bridge, and within minutes the tines went dead. But cleaning and reassembling fixed it.
And now for the positive actions you can take to make your kalimba sing sweetly:
4) When you travel with your kalimba, use a protective bag or case. A form fitting kalimba bag offers protection from other objects that would catch on the tines and pull them out of place, and give you some protection against crushing the box.
5) Learn to Tune: When you first notice your kalimba doesn’t sound in tune, touch up on the tuning. I tend to touch up on the tuning about once a month on my commonly played kalimbas. I also check the tuning before recording or performing. Kalimbas that aren’t played regularly can hold their tuning for years or decades.
6) Fix the Buzz! If your kalimba has one or more buzzy tines, there are many things you can do. The “paper fix” was the first technique I used. Repositioning the tine, torquing the tine, and the sand paper technique are also techniques I use when checking the kalimbas before shipping.
7) Take care of your kalimba wood. Treat the wood on your kalimba with shea butter or another wood oil every few months. I wipe on the shea butter, let it sit for a few minutes, and then wipe off the excess with a rag.
By the way, the three or four kalimbas that I play most will get a visible build-up of grime, mostly oils from my hands plus a bit of dust or dirt. I usually don’t notice this grime… but when the summer monsoons come to Tucson AZ, the extra humidity enhances the grime. I am a bit brutal with the kalimbas once a year – I will clean the grime off the wood with an abrassive sponge, and then I will apply some shea butter to the wood to condition it again.
8) Protect against rust. If you live in a humid environment, near the ocean, or cool your house with evaporative cooling, wipe down your tines (top and bottom) and other metal parts with mineral oil every few weeks or months. Wipe off excess oil before playing.
And an extra tip for free: Play Kalimba, Be Happy! One of the most important things to keep your kalimba happy is to play. When you play, you pay attention to the kalimba… and I believe the kalimba comes to pay attention to you too! Or maybe this is just the most important rule for keeping the kalimba player happy!
I have had two of my Hugh Tracey Kalimbas for over 30 years, and while they both look as though they have been around the block a few times, they both play every bit as beautifully as the new instruments that I imported from South Africa this year. With any luck, your kalimbas will last you a lifetime too! And if you suddenly realize that your kalimbas could be playing much better, but you don’t have the skills to put your kalimba back into shape, perhaps it is time to make an appointment with the Kalimba Doctors:
Enjoy your kalimba journey. These simple bits of kalimba maintenance should greatly enhance your kalimba experience!