Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire fame) started playing the Hugh Tracey Kalimba in his signature tuning 50 years ago
In ancient Africa there were dozens or even hundreds of great kalimba innovators, all lost to the dust of time. These ancestors we must honor, explicitly or implicitly, every time we pick up a kalimba.
Two people of the modern era who have done the most to move the kalimba forward are Hugh Tracey and Maurice White.
Hugh Tracey studied traditional African instruments extensively, and he also made the first commercial kalimbas to be marketed globally, starting in the 1950s. On this website, his name is well known.
Maurice White, leader of the pop and R&B band “Earth, Wind & Fire” is the world’s first kalimba star. He played the Hugh Tracey kalimba, but with a twist.
In late 1960s Chicago, Maurice White had some kalimba choices.
Phil Cohran had already developed his Frankiephone, a pentatonically-tuned (a simplified scale with 5 notes per octave) electrified kalimba with a rustic African look. In fact, as a teenager, Maurice White had studied music with Cohran. Cohran probably inspired Maurice White to use the pentatonic scale to reflect traditional African music.
Maurice White must surely have held an Afroharp in his hands. The Afroharp was an interesting hybrid kalimba, with octave pairings between lower-row and upper-row tines, and a heptatonic scale (6 notes per octave – in between the pentatonic 5-note scale and the diatonic 7-note scale). The Afroharp was created by James Wilson and Fred Kaz of Chicago. They had instruments available for sale by 1969, and Maurice White would have seen these.
But the instrument that Maurice White chose was the Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba, mounted on a box. Why? I’d like to assume that Maurice White thought the Hugh Tracey kalimba sounded the best.
In his travels across Africa over the course of 30 years, Hugh Tracey determined that about 40% of all traditional kalimbas are in a pentatonic (5 notes per octave) tuning. However, Hugh Tracey’s Treble kalimba, the instrument he created to sell to the world was carefully tuned to the diatonic scale (7 notes per octave – or the familiar “Do Re Mi Fa So La To Do”).
Maurice White made some big changes to the Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba – in order to get the sound he wanted, he retuned the diatonic, 17-note instrument to a pentatonic scale.
There are many ways this can be done. The lowest notes could have been lowered, and the top notes could have been lifted up higher – but this is a lot of work, and it might extend the notes beyond the natural range that the kalimba’s resonating box would sound well with. Instead, Maurice White took tines that were in half-step intervals with adjacent notes in the scale, and tuned the tines to the same note. Where there were B and C tines, he tuned B to C. Similar with F# and G. These two C tines would be on opposite sides of the kalimba, so he could make a fast trill, going back and forth between the two. This became one of his signature kalimba moves.
Had Maurice White chosen the Afroharp, its manufacturer would not have gone out of business in the mid 1970s. Had he chosen the Frankiephone, who knows what would have happened. But Maurice White chose the Hugh Tracey kalimba. That choice continues to fuel sales of the Hugh Tracey kalimba 50 years later.
About 10 years ago, I worked out the tuning and tablature for the Earth, Wind and Fire song “Evil” by giving meticulous attention to a video of Maurice White play. At that time, I just assumed that Mr. White had several kalimbas in different keys. However, every time I heard another EW&F song on YouTube, I realized that the A minor, redundant pentatonic “Evil Tuning” worked just fine. I figured it may well have been that White used only this one tuning.
But it turns out that my so-called “Evil Tuning” was not quite the whole story. I had all the right notes, and mostly in the right place, but I recently discovered that the opening seconds of the 1975 movie That’s the Way of the World feature Maurice White touching up the tuning on his kalimba. From the film, I can only get the notes for the left side of the instrument, but I am now 100% sure of those left-side notes. And I would say I’m about 80% sure of the right-side notes (I may still have a note in the wrong place on the right side of the kalimba).
Did Maurice White have multiple kalimba tunings?
I have heard from a few people that Maurice White seems to have had more than one tuning for the EW&F songs where he played kalimba. However, when I listen to the EW&F songs with kalimba, I do think that they can be played with this one tuning. The songs I have listened to include several improvisations, “Kalimba Tree,” “Evil,” “Kalimba Story,” “Kalimba Ballad,” “Africano,” and “New World Symphony.” From what I can tell, all of these songs can be played with the A-minor pentatonic tuning shown above. And as I’ve said, that doesn’t prove that I have it right.
MauricE WHite Went This Deep With Just One Tuning?
This is a very important statement: With just one single good kalimba tuning, Maurice White was able to create a great body of songs, leading to his kalimba fame and inspiring thousands of people to pick up the kalimba.
I actually dwell at the opposite end of that philosophy: I work with dozens of good kalimba tunings. Admittedly, each and every one of those tunings has great depth. You, or I, or the next Maurice White, could invest the hundreds and thousands of hours of time and work on any of these tunings, and derive great goodness and music from that kalimba music. But some tunings are different and special.
That leads to a good question: what will be the next magical tuning? I don’t know. For you, it could be Maurice White’s tuning.
The video below is the opening scene of “That’s the Way of the World,” which features Maurice White (immediately after the video starts) touching up and checking the tuning on one of his kalimbas.