Kalimba and Mindfulness – 1

Conscious attention can bring many benefits to you and your music

Photo by Glen Davis. Kalimba by Andrew Masters

What is mindfulness?  For me, mindfulness is being as present as I can be to the moment that is unfolding.  

Consider music as a sort of plow that is able to cut a furrow through the present moment.  Good music invites the listener to become entrained in that furrow as the musical plowshare cuts through the unfolding succession of present moments .  Good music, happy, sad, or otherwise, can be a great comfort as it can largely take us from whatever pathway we were wandering down, and instead directs our internal gaze (our attention) to fall upon something wonderful and beautiful.  Mindfulness can help us to be more attentive to the music and to experience it more deeply.

Can the kalimba be a tool for mindfulness?  Of course!

Playing music on the kalimba cuts that same furrow into the earth of the Eternal Now.  Not only can the kalimba be used as a tool for mindfulness, but playing the kalimba can be enhanced and improved through mindfulness.

The kalimba is not a toy, although too often it is treated as one, and its music seen as inconsequential. But anything you play on the kalimba can sound good, or even magical and enchanting. This magic is made from the synthesis of its inherently beautiful tone, tuning, and note layout, and the way it is played. And, if you work at this instrument, amazing things can happen, internally and externally.  The external is the sound of the kalimba’s music.  The internal is the change that has taken place within you the player, enabling you to create this amazing music.

At this time in my life I play a certain style of music on the kalimba. It took me 10-20 years to fulfill my vision of this style.  My style was born from a very early desire to play both melodies and accompanying chords on the guitar simultaneously.  That desire transferred to the kalimba 30 years ago, and I ultimately worked out how to play the style of music I had long dreamed about.  That, in and of itself, is a huge example of the result of mindfulness.  I approached the kalimba with a certain image of what was possible.  There were no books telling me what could or couldn’t be done – I gradually had to figure it all out on my own.  But this slow and steady approach with a goal in mind will get you to your destination.  And of course, the kalimba will teach you – do be open to, and listen for, the lessons it has to offer you.

I recommend that you create a clear image in your mind as to what sort of music you would like to play.  Can you hear it in your head when you close your eyes?  Can you describe it clearly in words?  Can you find someone else in the world who is playing this type of music, either on kalimba or on some other instrument? 

When you start to imagine the sort of music you want to play, hold on to the idea of that music.  Feel it.  Think about it whenever you pick up the kalimba.  Trust that even if you have no idea of how to achieve your musical dream, your subconscious mind will start working on how to make this music.  Look for whatever tools might be available to help you create this music – there are a great many kalimba books, recordings, and videos now, and you can probably get some assistance from these resources.  You may even want to take a few kalimba lessons.

At some point you may find that you want a different kalimba or karimba from the one you already have.  As you progress, pay attention to the idiosyncracies and limitations of your kalimba.  Are there other kalimba designs or note layouts that are better suited for your musical goals?  The image in your mind of the sort of music that is possible for you to play will evolve as you understand more about the kalimbas and their possibilities.

Over the last year, I have made learning traditional African music (which I had not strongly focused on previously) a top priority.  In other words, I set a new vision of what my kalimba music would be like.

I put my African-tuned Karimba out where I’d see and play it each day, and I bought a good mbira dzavadzimu.  I now play both of these instruments every day with a clear image in my mind as to the sort of music I want to play.  I listen to as much traditional African music as I can.  And I even wrote a book on how to play this music on the karimba, which helped me immeasurably to learn the music and its heritage.  I am surrounding myself with this music and the tools I need to be able to freely create it.  I expect this to be a 10-year journey, and I am up for it.  Already I have written my first mbira songs and variations to other songs.  Already I am improvising on mbira.  Already I am assisting others on their journeys with karimba and mbira.  I am already seeing the fruits of this labor – the instructional book “About 30 Traditional African Songs for the Hugh Tracey African Karimba” being the most visible of those.  How much more will greet me, and the world, as I walk consistently, mindfully, down this road day by day?!

You could say my newest musical vision gives my life new meaning.  And being mindful at every step of the way is certainly helping.

In the future, expect more instructional resources of the same caliber as the “About 30 Traditional… African Karimba” book, for karimba, Alto kalimba, Bb and D Treble kalimbas, and even for mbira.  It has been my experience that the mbira world, populated by high functioning experts on the instrument, is sorely lacking for easy songs appropriate for less-experienced players.  The traditional karimba songs tend to be based on simpler two-phrase music, which can be easily translated to the mbira.  And I am the guy who can do that.

Next in the Mindfulness Series:  a detailed look at how I apply mindfulness to learning to play a song on kalimba.

Below: “O Danny Boy” is a good example of the style of music I imagined for kalimba so many years ago, combining melody and chordal accompaniment.

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