In the 1970s, Black Pride was a huge thing. And it should be now too. But I think most Black people have done their part. Now, it is the White people who need to appreciate and understand Black Pride, without fear and without offense. I for one understand that when I appreciate the beauty of African culture, I find it very hard to be racist or to put Black people down categorically. Kalimba culture is something that can lift up Black people, can lift up non-Black understanding and an appreciation of Black culture, and can certainly make the world a better place.
The rich cultural diversity of Africa was torn from enslaved peoples who were stolen from their homeland and transplanted in a strange and hostile land. In 1970, people were ready to replace that stolen heritage with anything that echoed the lost African culture. And the AfroHarp was an instrument that fit that bill.
The AfroHarp was not a traditional African instrument. But it was easy to play, and it did have aspects of some of the traditional African kalimbas.
The AfroHarp tuning featured octave pairs between the lower and upper rows.
About the AfroHarp’s Note Layout
On the mbira dzavadzimu and the karimba (also known as the mbira nyunga nyunga), there are several places where an upper row note is an octave above a nearby lower note. This permits you to slide off of the upper row tines and onto a lower row tine that is an octave lower.
Doubling the octaves this way gives extra power to the music. You can see me doing this trick in the video starting at 0:34, doubling the right hand notes, first the A, then the C, then the E. This trick is essential to the African sound of mbira and karimba music. And so, the AfroHarp distills and echoes this essentially African way of organizing the notes on various African instruments, and puts it on an instrument of a new design.
About the AfroHarp’s Scale
The AfroHarp uses a hexatonic, or 6-note scale. It has one more note than a pentatonic scale, but is missing the “leading tone” or F# in it’s key of G major. This is both freeing and restricting. By the way, Hugh Tracey’s research found 40% of traditional African kalimbas played pentatonic, or 5-note scales, 20% played hexatonic scales, and 40% played heptatonic or 7-note scales, most similar to the western “Do Re Mi” scale.
To summarize: the AfroHarp is not really African, but it takes a few essential elements of traditional African instruments and serves them up on an instrument that makes it easy to play certain types of pleasing music. But, putting the AfroHarp tuning on a Hugh Tracey Kalimba made in Africa… gives it an extra layer of cultural ambiguity. Sorry, but I love it!
If you would like to get an Alto Kalimba recast as an AfroHarp, we are apparently the only people who sell them.
Here are some more posts about Kalimba History and the AfroHarp:
The Kalimba, its African History, and Black Pride – your “rough” guide