My Story of Hugh Tracey

He understood the potential loss of traditional African music to the encroachment of the west, and worked his whole life to preserve it

Hugh Tracey is a complex and important historical figure in the contemporary kalimba world. I should start by stating my relationship to Hugh Tracey: for the last 33 years, I have played instruments he designed, and for about half that time I have made most of my living by selling Hugh Tracey kalimbas. So I might be a little prejudiced, but Hugh Tracey’s work was clearly pivotal in the trajectory of modern lamellaphones.

Hugh Tracey, a white European man, cherished traditional African music and made it his life’s work to study and preserve that music. But he also invented and marketed the Hugh Tracey kalimba, which is not a traditional instrument at all, and has, arguably, directed some interest away from traditional instruments such as the mbira dzavadzimu or the karimba.

For me though, the Hugh Tracey kalimba has been a doorway to the world of ancient and traditional African music. Would you like to explore that world, and Hugh Tracey’s part in it, with me?


I never met Hugh Tracey. He died in 1977, after I had played my first Hugh Tracey kalimba, but long before I ever heard his name. His son Andrew tells this about his father: Hugh was about to depart on one of his world-wide tours, giving presentations at universities and cultural events about his findings about African music and about his own creation, the Hugh Tracey kalimba. Before he left he said to his elder son, Andrew: “You take care of ILAM (the International Library of African Music) while I’m gone.” And to Andrew’s wife, Heather: “While I’m away, please watch over AMI (African Musical Instruments, the makers of the Hugh Tracey kalimba).”

Hugh Tracey never came back from his last tour. He died during this travels, but he had already made sure that the two key components of his legacy were taken care of by people he loved and trusted.

Andrew describes his father as “one of the ‘great men’ of Africa” – someone who would hold court, and strangers would travel across the continent, or even across the world, to meet him. Even though he never had any formal training in music, he seemed to understand a great amount about African music. (His studies were taken up by the next generation of African music scholars, especially son Andrew Tracey and Viennese researcher Gerhard Kubik, and they came to understand a great deal more.)

The very interesting question is: How did Hugh Tracey rise to this success from being virtually on his own in the world at 17 years of age, living in Africa, half a world away from England, the land of his upbringing?

I will speculate that Hugh Tracey’s success is in large part due to his character: his curiosity of mind, decency of heart, and the clarion that rang in his being when exposed to something he felt was amazing.

When Hugh Tracey moved from England to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) which was the heart of the mbira world, shortly after his father’s death, he was thrown into the divide between two worlds: the white colonial patriarchal system that exploited Africa for its wealth of raw materials and cheap labor, and the rapidly disappearing (or more realistically, transforming) cultures of black Africa. The general rules at that time: In order to effectively exploit Africa and Africans, there can be no appreciation of the cultures that are being starved or decimated by your exploitation. Hugh Tracey could more clearly see the unique and wonderful aspects of the traditional African music he encountered. Perhaps this was because he had no financial investment in the white-dominated system.

Fairly early on in the 57 years that Hugh lived and worked in Africa, he realized a dual calling: because he recognized how amazing the African music was and the other whites he encountered did not, he found a mission in documenting and preserving whatever African music and musical instruments he could find. But he also felt a special bond to the mbira, the first musical instrument that touched his heart when at 17, he heard the workers on his brother’s tobacco farm playing it.

Hugh was inspired and charismatic in his zeal. He recognized that the forces of western influence – first four-part choral church music, and later on, western music disseminated by radio – would eventually distort or even destroy traditional African music. Without funds of his own, he enthusiastically obtained funding from European sources to study and preserve traditional African music. (Andrew Tracey told me that composer Gustav Holst was among the donors who contributed money to Hugh Tracey’s ventures.)

Hugh Tracey had no formal training, in music, or ethnomusicology, or anything. He was making it up as he went along. Regardless, he did remarkable work. He organized and led several multi-month expeditions to explore the musical worlds of southern Africa. He made and cataloged extensive notes, photographs, and sound recordings of musical performances in rural areas in several southern African countries.

In his decades of exploration in the field, Hugh Tracey would document over 100 distinct kalimba instruments, each with its own tuning, note layout, and repertoire.  Some were large instruments with 20, 30, or 40 or more individual tines. Some were very simple instruments with 8 notes or fewer. Hugh recognized that documenting the different kalimbas’ tunings was one of the most important things he could do.

Eventually, Hugh Tracey got the idea that the historic evolution of the various members of the kalimba family of instruments could be understood by tracing the precise tunings of these instruments. Just as DNA turns out to be the informational backbone of genetic biology, kalimba tunings are a way to trace which kalimbas are older, and which kalimbas derive from older instruments.

Hugh was obsessed with how the kalimba tunings deviated from the western scale. The western scale is based on a 12-tone system of notes, each half a step apart. This system is most transparently reflected by the 12 different western notes on the piano. The 7-note diatonic scales are an approximate subset of these 12 tones. But centuries earlier, western music was more wild and less systematically structured. Different cities across Europe might have used the same basic scales, but they used different tuning standards! Not just A=440 Hz and A=432 Hz… but dozens of standards. There was no way to measure the exact frequencies in those days, but any traveling wind players needed to bring short little extra flute bits to extend their instrument to be long enough (and low enough) to play with the other musicians in a flat-leaning town, city or region.

The kalimbas that Hugh Tracey found did have different reference tones, but more importantly, they had different scales, based on intervals different from our own scales, but also from each other’s scales.

To understand how these different scales are passed down through time, think about the way the kalimbas were made. Perhaps there was one person in a village who made kalimbas. They had their own kalimba, which they probably played. This is important, because it means that if their instrument got out of tune, the kalimba maker would recognize that it no longer played the songs correctly. The remedy, of course, is to retune the instrument back to its original tuning. If only one or two notes is out, the kalimba maker will be able to retune by ear, just in reference to the other notes on his kalimba, until it played correctly again.

More important, as this kalimba maker made new kalimbas, he would use his own instrument as a model. He would cut wood to be the same size as his kalimba, and get metal tines that matched the tines on his instrument. And when he was setting up the newly finished instrument, he would pluck each of his original kalimba’s tines, and compare this to the sound made by each of the tines on the new instrument. If they did not match, he would adjust the tuning of the new instrument until it was properly in tune, with his own instrument and with the memory of what the music should sound like.

In order for this to make sense, we have to have some respect for this historic kalimba maker. He was a modern man. He was a skilled craftsman. And his ear could probably discern tuning differences as small as 1-5 cents (1 – 5% of a half step). In other words, if you transported that person from his time in prehistoric Africa to now, we would probably be able to learn a great deal about his understanding of his music and his instrument, and we could probably play music with him if we worked at it. And I think this would all be true, if we were to go back to visit a kalimba maker from a hundred years ago, or if we visited a kalimba maker from a thousand years ago.

It is easy to imagine Hugh Tracey seeing how the kalimbas were made, and him jumping to the conclusion that the notes, the scales, and the exact intervals in the scales, all were passed down from generation to generation, much the same as genetic information is passed through the generations of a species.

In evolution, successful genetic mutations (ones that are passed down to another generation) are rare. In this evolutionary kalimba theory, the analog of the genetic mutation is the creation of a new sort of kalimba, with more or fewer tines, and/or with a different tuning. Today, we are in a hyper-intense environment where we are always seeking the new thing at alarmingly fast rates. In this environment, I might investigate several new tunings each week. But our prehistoric African kalimba craftsman probably did not. In the past, I think new kalimba designs and new kalimba tunings would have been rare. But we also know that they happened.

You can actually see this at work – both the evolution of the note layout over time, and also the conservative tendency to maintain the same note layout. In 1867, German explorer Karl Mauch traveled through what is now Zimbabwe, and he documented the tuning of a 29-note mbira dzavadzimu, in terms of “nearest western intervals.” The tuning documented by Mauch is basically the same as what Andrew Tracey documented over 100 years later… except that by the time Andrew Tracey was experiencing the mbira dzavadzimu, it had 6 fewer tines! Three tines each from the far left and far right edges of the mbira apparently were no longer used in the songs, because, they had been taken off the instrument. Of course, another possibility is that back in 1867 the Shona people brought Karl Mauch a really special mbira, owned by a special person, with extra notes on it. But the key thing is that even after 100 years, the mbira maintained a common core of notes, which means both instruments can play the same body of traditional songs. One ponders: how far back in time might this homology of the essential mbira maintain?

Look for a moment at the mbira dzavadzimu. There is no “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to learn on it. The simplest of mbira songs requires a lot of diligence, coordination, and rhythmic understanding. The world-wide community of mbira players is pretty unique. This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it is almost as if they all have PhD’s in mbira music. The mbira community seems to be made up of uniquely high functioning individuals. That extreme level of musical competence did not arrive overnight. I believe it has been there pretty much the whole time people in Africa have been making metal-tined instruments. This very high level of functioning of the mbira community is part of the tradition, and I dare say that the mbira has lifted people up in a great many ways.

To further study the tunings of the various traditional kalimbas more precisely, in the 1950s Hugh Tracey obtained a set of microtonal pitch forks covering one octave. At the lower end of the one octave range, there were three tuning forks – ie, pitch references – per half-step interval (that is, Hugh Tracey had only about 30 cents accuracy in his pitch measurements of the lowest notes in his range). At the top of the one-octave range, there were six tuning forks per half step. Hugh would pick up an instrument acknowledged to be in correct tuning by its owner, and play the notes, one at a time. As he played a note, he would strike several different tuning forks, and then determine which fork (ie, which frequency, and which pitch) was closest. If the kalimba tine was lower or higher than his one-octave range of tuning forks, he would shift the note up or down an octave in his mind or by voice, until it was in the range of his tuning forks.

While it was very useful for Hugh Tracey to document the micro-tonal tunings of the traditional African kalimbas, in the end these precise intervals and their deviation from western intervals was not the key that unlocked the evolutionary history of the kalimbas. Hugh Tracey’s son Andrew appears to have gotten that prize.

Rather than paying attention to the differences in the intervals, Andrew looked at the instruments as playing scales that are essentially similar to our western scale, with the tones “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8” approximating the western tones “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do”. By ignoring the microtonal deviations, and by referencing all the tunings to their “local standard pitch”, or “Do,” Andrew could follow the tones from one instrument’s tuning to another instrument’s tuning. And it turned out that a great many traditional instruments shared the same basic notes at the center of their layouts. So, instead of tracing the exact deviations in the intervals, all one had to do to understand the evolutionary web of kalimbas was to follow the generic intervals from one instrument to another.

So, was Hugh Tracey wrong? Let’s face it, he started out knowing nothing about ethnomusicology, and then a few years later, he was basically practicing ethnomusicology professionally. And by modern standards, Hugh Tracey made a lot of professional errors. He influenced the performances too much by his expectations and his actions. And his grand evolutionary theory of all kalimbas did not work out the way he had imagined. But Hugh Tracey did see the basic shape of the evolution of kalimbas, set up the question, and then got to watch his own son unravel the puzzle. Of course, Hugh Tracey’s work recording, documenting, and collecting data and understanding about the various kalimbas was also essential to Hugh’s son Andrew’s breakthrough theory of kalimba evolution.

Let’s look at Andrew Tracey. One of the key events in Andrew’s musical life was meeting Jege Tapera, the Southern Rhodesian karimba player whom Andrew first met in 1960 who became one of the teachers at the Kwanongoma College of African Music. Andrew’s career as an ethnomusicologist was in part based on his work studying Jege Tapera’s music.

Andrew Tracey’s 1961 paper “Mbira Music of Jege A. Tapera” looks into how Jege came to play mbira in a region generally outside the mbira belt. It looks in detail at his instrument tuning and design. But most important, it transcribes several of the songs Jege played on his karimba. Andrew got the glory of publishing a scholarly paper and beginning his career in ethnomusicology. Jege got the glory for knowing the songs, living the tradition, and passing those songs along to many students and ultimately to the world. Of course, those songs were largely passed down to him from older traditions, and it is the whole chain of mbira players that deserve the glory.

My perspective: These traditional karimba and mbira songs are part of our human heritage. They are an example of the cleverness of the human mind and the fullness of the human heart. Jege shared them with Andrew and also with his students. The songs were carried forth, by Andrew Tracey’s work, by Dumisani Maraire’s performances, by his daughter Chiwoniso, by Paul F. Berliner’s book, through Hugh Tracey’s ILAM, and in part, by my own work. And these songs are being carried forward today by the work and music of others.

Whenever we hear or play this music we need to pay homage to all the people who have done this work in modern times, notably Jege Tapera, but also to all those unknown hundreds or thousands of mbira players who transmitted these songs before him, and even those who came after him.

And I can say that playing these songs can change your heart and soul. They can make you more tender to our human antecedents and to the generations of Africans who created these instruments and songs. Hold them in high regard in your heart, and this will transform your relationship with Africa.

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