The Story of the Kalimba

The history of the thumb piano in Africa and how the kalimba got to be a household name

Hugh Tracey records an unknown karimba player

I just gave a presentation on the kalimba at the OLLI-UA  (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Arizona) in Tucson, and decided to share with you the Powerpoint of the presentation (actually it’s a PDF of the Powerpoint).  A great thing about this 45 page PDF presentation is that it has many clickable links to interesting sound recordings and YouTube videos, which really make the presentation come alive.  One negative is that at a number of places, I made instructions to myself to play a certain song, or show a particular kalimba; these instructions are not presently linked to anything, so these parts of the presentation will be missing for the time being.

Free Download: The Story of the Kalimba

I invite you to download this 25 MB PDF presentation on the story of the kalimba and use it for your own enjoyment and education. Or it could help you if you are planning on making your own presentation on the history of the kalimba.

Full of interesting historical photographs and links to some of the most important kalimba footage in history, this version of the presentation greatly surpasses my earlier attempts to tell the kalimba story. The text is mostly in very brief outline or bullet presentation, so unfortunately, and for the moment, it does lack my personal words, thoughts, and general “slant” on the subject.

In addition to the historical information, there is also an extended bit of instruction for the 8- or 9- note Student Karimba, supposed by Andrew Tracey to be the “original mbira”. When I do a kalimba presentation, I bring a set of 22 student karimbas for members of the audience to use, and we get the left and right thumbs working together and learn a few different pieces of traditional music.  I feel that getting an African chord progression rolling off their thumbs makes the dry information that the attenders have been taking in ever so much more real.

In the presentation, there is a very interesting clip of Hugh Tracey in front of his collection of traditional kalimbas. He goes from one to another and plays a few notes on each, but doesn’t really play any real music on them. Then he switches to his own invention, the Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba, and plays the eminently recognizable “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”.

A large part of the kalimba story is that each group of African people who got the kalimba changed it to so they could play their own music on it. They made an instrument that played their own scale, rather than the scale of the people from whom they got the kalimba. The Hugh Tracey kalimba was built for the western ear, for people accustomed to western harmonies and melodies. It is a kalimba with uniformly graded tone across the instrument (much easier for westerners to “grok”), is more manageable and is easily tuned. Yet, it is still a kalimba.

So we can see here that Hugh Tracey did exactly what people have always historically done with the kalimba; although he probably changed it more and took it a great distance away from its origins, and made it a lot simpler for westerners to work with…he still fulfilled the human imperative, in continuing the evolution of this marvelous little instrument. And the kalimbas that I personally connect with are almost all Hugh Tracey kalimbas; I am very glad that they exist in the world.

Free Download: The Story of the Kalimba

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