Two Great Kalimbas that go Great Together!
One of my favorite things to do is to play kalimba duets with a close friend.
The Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba is one of the most popular and most capable of all kalimbas. In many ways, it is the gold standard by which all other kalimbas are measured. I have written more books and music for the Alto Kalimba than for any other, and very often it is still one of my Altos (I have them in G, C, and F now) that I grab when I walk out the door.
The Hugh Tracey Box Pentatonic is a kalimba that is particularly easy to play, because it has 11 notes that cover the same physical space and the same tonal range as the Alto kalimba’s 15 notes – that is, the tines are more spaced out both physically and sonically. It is easier to pluck the tine you intended; and if you pluck the wrong tine there is much less chance for disaster.
As it happens the Alto and Pentatonic kalimbas complement each other beautifully, and sound great together – and now you can get both of these great kalimbas in an attractive package deal.
The song that is playing right now has the Box Pentatonic kalimba in the left speaker and the Alto Kalimba in the right speaker.
On the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba is every note in the G Major scale, over a two octave range (15 notes) starting on the low note of G below middle C (which is the G string on a guitar). The G major scale is also called the G major diatonic scale. The Hugh Tracey Box Pentatonic kalimba has the exact same body, the same tines, the same low note and high note, but the pentatonic scale lacks two notes per octave, so we have only 11 notes, which gives us more space between the tines.
There are many ways the Alto and Pentatonic kalimbas can work together. My default mode is to have the more experienced musician play the Alto, and the less experienced player on the Pentatonic. The Alto requires more skill, and it is also more musically capable. In particular, the Alto is capable of full diatonic harmonies. If the Alto player knows how to turn a chord progression, they are playing a supportive role for the Pentatonic player. Meanwhile, the Pentatonic kalimba lends itself to playing more improvisationally. As the Pentatonic is missing all half-step intervals (at least in the standard G major and G minor tunings), you can play it with abandon, without much concern for whether you are going to land on a bad note. As such, you can play louder and with more confidence, which makes for more remarkable leads and melodies. Just twiddle your thumbs and soar. In summary, the Alto defines the chord progression and structure of the song, and the Pentatonic provides melodic and charismatic decoration.
The song in the media player below (derived from the song “Pfumvu Paruzevha”, on Thomas Mapfumo’s CD “Live at El Rey”) is a different example of how you can make the Hugh Tracey Alto and Pentatonic kalimbas sound great together. (The tablature for this song is available in a separate blog post, so it should be fairly easy for you to learn this piece yourself.) Here, the two kalimbas are being played somewhat similarly to the way two mbiras are played together – in kushaura and kutsinhira parts. That is, each instrument is sort of playing in the gaps of the other’s music, and this results in a strong and sturdy connection, and also tends to make one instrument sound as if it is echoing the other instrument, though in this case the parts are not identical. In the song you are hearing, the two kalimbas have more or less equal importance in the music. Also, in this song, while the Pentatonic kalimba’s part is inherently simpler because it has fewer notes than the Alto’s, either part would be playable by the less-experienced player.
I have given you a couple of ideas, but there’s a whole world of possibilities for how a diatonic Alto kalimba and a Pentatonic kalimba can create beautiful music together. I expect you will find your own ways of pairing these two kalimbas to produce unique joyful noise.