My Favorite Tuning from 70s Afropop star Francis Bebey’s Kalimbas

Look up Francis Bebey on YouTube. He made great, diverse, charismatic groove-based music in Cameroon in the 1970s. Many of his songs featured his kalimba playing. He also played guitar, and sang. But often, he led his band with kalimba and singing.

To my ear, each of Francis Bebey’s kalimba songs used a different kalimba tuning. (He was the opposite of Maurice White, who seemed to use the same tuning on all of his songs.)

My take on that: each of Francis Bebey’s kalimbas had a different tuning, and each played different music. Each of his kalimbas had a different song.

One of my favorite Fancis Bebey songs is “Breaths”, which was rewritten and recorded by “Sweet Honey in the Rock” in the USA. It is a song about ancestor worship, that the ancestors’ spirits are always with us. The Fancis Bebey original version used a really cool pentatonic tuning on his kalimba, which I reproduce as the “Bebey F7” Tuning. I put it on a Hugh Tracey Pentatonic kalimba, and it makes magic like this:

 


The Bebey-F7-Tuned Hugh Tracey Box Pentatonic Kalimba

The logic, the notes that defined the musical universe of Francis Bebey’s song, lives on in this tuning. As he passed in 2001, he is now among the ancestors who speak to us through this tuning.

Part of Francis Bebey’s “African Sound” lies in the sound of the kalimba notes. But a great deal of the African Sound lies in the tuning.

You can get a Hugh Tracey Box Pentatonic Kalimba or a Celeste Board-mounted Pentatonic Kalimba in Bebey Tuning, and you can continue the conversation with the ancients on your own.

There is a series of Tips Available for the Bebey-F7-Tuned Pentatonic Kalimba. Go there if you want to see this tuning in detail. Note that I have not written a book for this tuning. I see it as a wild kalimba tuning that loves to run free and improvise, and I would not really want to dampen that instinct to just run and play.

That is another gift of African music to the world: the pure fun and physicality of improvisational music. And the kalimba is a perfect place to practice that gift, with thumbs and fingers dancing joyfully over the tines.

I have also borrowed this special Bebey pentatonic scale for the Blood Moon Tuning of the Moon-10 Kalimba.

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