Selecting Songs for a Kalimba Performance

From my experiences in the past

One kalimba associate asks: “How do I choose the songs to play at my kalimba performance?”

Well, you want songs that connect with meaning and significance to you… and also to your audience.

Even though your kalimba is probably not a traditional African instrument, I ask you to consider it nonetheless as a sacred instrument, capable of touching people, moving people, healing people, and helping people be their best. Of course, that means both the musician and the audience. Seemingly a tall order, but the magical kalimba is suited for it.

And the songs you choose can play into this narrative.


You can consider the song selection process to be an intellectual exercise. You can make lists, or survey your friends, or even rate songs and crunch numbers. But often the best song selection grows from profoundly personal roots; this group of songs then become part of a greater entity (the performance you create) that can convey meaning to, and evoke appreciation and emotion in your audience.

Many people have a deficit of peaceful time in their day. But if you are a kalimba player, there is a good chance that you have carved out some peaceful time in your day that you spend making music with your kalimba. (If you are a kalimba player, and you have not experienced peaceful time with your kalimba, I would suggest that you sometimes try to approach your kalimba as a doorway to meditation, or a doorway to peace.)

When you perform in front of people, you want to take the peaceful, joyful energy you likely experience when you play by yourself… and share that good energy with the audience. And, as I have mentioned before, one of the things that gets in the way of you sharing the lovely positive energy of the kalimba is nerves, or performance anxiety. One of the best ways to beat nerves is to be prepared. The recent blog post “Sage Advice for Performing on Kalimba” addressed that in part.

But consider the song selection process to be a strong unifying factor in your music and your performance that can make nerves nearly irrelevant.

I will explain what I mean here with three specific examples. Now, I have done enough performances to know that most of them end up having a modest amount of thought and heart and soul go into them. But sometimes, a performance comes along that is special, and you end up putting a great amount of effort into those performances, starting with the song selection process. And while I’m sure it is not universally true, I myself find that when I make a performance be really special, and put that extra effort into it, I always play with great confidence, and generally play with great ability as well.

My Christmas Medley – Trust your intuitive self

In 2002, I requested and got a 25 minute performance slot at a musical Christmas party. There would be a stage, a PA system, and at least six different music acts, and I knew that my kalimba playing would be unique. But I also knew that I had about two months to prepare something really special for this group of friends and acquaintances.

The day after I learned that I would be performing, I went off to a peaceful spot, sat down on a bench, and closed my eyes, kalimba in hand. I imagined that it was December, and that I was playing my kalimba songs for the audience. The first thing I noticed is that, at this holiday party, everyone was talking and reconnecting with friends that they hadn’t seen for months. So I thought: “How am I going to get their attention?” – the kalimba would be doomed if everyone talked over it. I thought that maybe I could lead a sing-along of favorite carols. But singing isn’t my forte.

I imagined: “What sort of kalimba song would make people pay attention?” And as I imagined I was playing before the audience, I saw myself playing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” (This song is also intertwined with the history of the kalimba – Hugh Tracey would perform this song to promote the Hugh Tracey Kalimba in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.)

My vision of what my performance would be gradually moved from my head into my hands, as I started to play the popular J.S. Bach tune on my kalimba. I imagined that every note was a gift to the audience. And this heart-expanding vision inside my head kept going as my thumbs kept playing. I got to the end of “Jesu,” but instead of stopping, I took the (imagined) gathered attention of the audience, and shifted it to “O Holy Night.” This shift worked because “Jesu,” in 9/8 time, is founded on a pattern of three triplets: “One-two-three Two-two-three Three-two-three” and “O Holy Night,” in 6/8 time, is founded on a rhythmic pattern of two triplets: “One-two-three Two-two-three.” The seamless shift from one song to the other seemed like a musical joke, but I knew that the energy and focus that people would otherwise have funneled into applause for the first song, would instead go into paying attention to the second song.

Which brings me to an important point – bring a little notebook and pen with you when you go on a vision quest for kalimba songs to perform.

And so, almost as if I were taking dictation from God, the songs came one after another. Before I stood up from my bench, my vision was strong enough to give me a string of 12 different Christmas carols that flowed one into the next, both musically and thematically. Even though I did not sing a single word, it seemed to me that the people in the audience would hear the messages of the songs – “Away in a Manger,” followed by “Bring a Torch” and “We Three Kings,” then moving to the more grand celebratory hymns such as “Angels we Have Heard on High” and “Joy to the World.”

In my mind, this medley evoked the nostalgia of every non-commercial Christmas carol that was important to me in my youth. And it turns out that many people have had similar experiences to me, because I get that comment from a lot of people when I perform the Christmas medley.

And that underscores one of the primary lessons of this story: perform songs that are important to you in some way, and hopefully important to the audience.

And while I touched on nostalgia, I did not explicitly call this out, but here it is: the kalimba sounds like a little music box, and even though most people no longer have music boxes, the nostalgia and emotional connotation of music box sound is still fresh in our culture. So I invite you to play that up – to select songs and arrangements that bring out nostalgia.

And of course, you, your heart, and your mind are your best tools for coming up with songs to perform. Trust in your intuitive self, and let your answers come boldly from within.

Telling your stories With the Kalimba
Performance 4

Try this: Cut up pieces of card stock, and on each piece, write down the name of a song that you can play well, or that you hope to play well by performance time. If you are lucky, you will have way more songs than you have time to play, and you will have the luxury of choosing a path through the forest of your songs.

Spread the song names out on a table top.

Now, start to imagine different stories – stories about your life, about the kalimba, about the kalimba in your life… or about whatever. As you pick a particular story, look at the song titles. Which songs, if any, relate to your story?

Of course, you can play this game the other way, too. Once you select a story to tell through kalimba songs, you might decide that you need to learn a new song or two to make a particular part of your story come alive in music. You might even decide you need to learn a new type of kalimba to make your story in a more authentic way.

In addition to the stories of my own kalimba playing, the story that keeps coming back in my kalimba performances is the story of how the kalimba came to be. That is a huge story. To tell it properly, I perform songs on the student karimba, the karimba, the mbira dzavadzimu, some of the more modern Hugh Tracey kalimbas, and now even one of the new Chinese-made kalimbas.

If you want to integrate part of the story of the kalimba into your kalimba performance, don’t expect it to come together at the last minute. This will take months or even years of learning and playing and planning and then relearning. I can say that this is a worthy journey, and traveling it will bring you many unexpected gifts. Kalimba Magic definitely gives you many resources that will be helpful to you on this journey.

But the key concept to get from this tale about how I sometimes build my kalimba performance around the story of the kalimba: If you use a moving or intriguing story, such as the story of the kalimba, as your organizing principle, you will be buoyed by this story. You will be inspired to share an inspiring story. You will be like a missionary for the ways of the kalimba.

Plus, if you tell your story with passion, you yourself will be so caught up in the telling of your story that nervousness will not be in your mind at all.

My Work with a LooperPerformance 3

 I recently did a 90 minute performance in which every song was looped.

While looping has always been great fun, my songs are generally fuller and more complex than can be effectively performed on a single looper. I finally hit the sweet spot with the Boss RC-300 three track looper. I generally used the first track as a “click track”, but played live by scratching on my guitar strings for one or two measures. This left me with two other tracks, useful for either an A and a B part, or for a melody and a countermelody that work when played back simultaneously.

I was following my own advice from last time, making sure that I was totally prepared on each song. (By the way, “totally prepared” does not mean that every note I was to perform was set in advance. However, I knew the exact structure of the song, what I needed to put into the song to make it work, and where I would have some room to stretch out and improvise within the structure of the song.)

The set list for that recent 90 minute performance was slow in coming. I wrote down about one song a day, as I thought of them, for a period of days… but having this list was not proof that I could actually perform any of these songs. And this can cause some consternation.

Finally, about a week before the performance, I found an eight hour block of time when I could work on the songs without interruption. And of course, when you just (finally) sit down with the problem at hand, the knot will show you how to untie itself. Two 45 minute sets came together quite quickly when I finally devoted my time and energy to the process.

And the organizing principle for these set lists was the technology I was using. Songs that I could get to work on the looper were on the list. Songs that did not work with the looper were either modified until they did work, or they were off.

The message to you: you may have a new bit of technology that suggests a song list to you. Exploit the technology, go where it takes you, and select songs that work well within the constraints and strengths of that technology and your ability to use it.

And another tip: if you are using a special bit of technology, make sure that it makes your performance better and not just more complicated. I found that, while the looper was complicated, I was able to set it up in ways that I would just naturally follow a path that resulted in good sounds and no timing errors… more on that another time, because making looping sound simple is really an art. But in my recent performance, the looper really did make it easier for me to sound good.

And that is one of the over-arching ideas here: do things that make everything feel natural. Choose songs that make it easy to succeed. Really think about it, envision what your performance could be, and figure out which songs will be most special, in the way they are created and in the way they come off. Special songs that come off great will put you well on your way to a good performance. Figure out how the songs in your list fit together to tell a story and you can create a performance that is both commanding and memorable.

Getting Kalimba Songs

And so I wish you luck in picking out the special songs that will move your special audience.

There are now growing lists of kalimba resources. Of course, Kalimba Magic is a leader in the field of kalimba music. Links to our libraries of downloads, books, and ebooks are found below.

And here is a tip to help you select songs: when you look at a book or an ebook in the Kalimba Magic shop, most of them have an image of that book’s table of contents. You can look through the contents to get ideas for songs, as well as to help you decide which materials would be the best for you to order.

If you have a good ear and know a bit of music theory, you will surely be able to create your own arrangements or even write your own songs. This is a very rich path, and I encourage you to create your own music as you can. A good way to learn about your kalimba’s possibilities is to get a few downloads or books for your kalimba and see the music that I have created for that particular kalimba. I would be honored if you borrowed what you learn from me, and apply those techniques to the songs of your own choosing.

Yes, it will take you a while to get good at arranging music for kalimba. But it reminds me of a joke I recently saw online:

Student: “How long will it take me to learn to play this instrument?”

Teacher: “If you are lucky, the rest of your life!”

What a blessing, to be on a creative journey whereby day by day, we build ourselves up and strengthen our abilities and our skills. I can attest that after 33 years of walking, running, crawling, kneeling, standing, and sometimes going backward on this path, I am still learning more, and I am still getting better, and I am still creating new and wonderful music, and I am still amazing myself and finding pleasure and joy in the experiences of playing and sharing my kalimba with others.

My hope is that you also have a joyful and meaningful experience with your kalimba.

Photos: Kathleen Dreier

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