23 May 2016
Titos Sompa and Mark Holdaway: Merging Sound and Story in an Evening of Kalimba
Review of a house concert in Tucson, May 2016
On the cusp of the new moon, on the evening of May 4th, a group of individuals gathered in the living room of Tabitha Danloe, before performers Mark Holdaway and Titos Sompa, and around the kalimba—the force of the evening. Titos Sompa is a Congolese Master in dance, drum, kalimba, and more. Mark Holdaway is the founder of Kalimba Magic.
My own experience with the kalimba is brand new—just a brush stroke in the air. I am no expert in its anthropological beginnings: the places, the cultures; the spiritual roots and experiences; the sounds the kalimba can make and how they happen. But Titos Sompa and Mark Holdaway are experts—and each in their own way. In this intimate concert setting, each of the men pulled the audience into their individual, and shared, passion for the kalimba. And it was plain to see: it’s a passion that is rooted deep in their hearts, and deep in their stories. A profundity of story was what I experienced that night, and was what I took home with me. The kalimba inspires story. The kalimba is story.
Both Titos and Mark were introduced to the kalimba as children. Mark met the musical instrument in Dallas when he was two and discovered a marvelous box with little metal tines on it on the coffee table at the house of a family friend. And though that was a chance encounter, his journey since then was decidedly intentional, seeking out and learning the instrument which so inspired him. Titos was born into the belly of the kalimba world. His kalimba roots reach far and wide through time and space, and were cultivated in a family and a culture where playing and hearing kalimba came as naturally as breathing.
Throughout our evening together, nimble thumbs made musical stories on thin metal keys. These stories were told through the melodies themselves—for can’t we all drift dreamily on the tails—and tales—of sweet notes? And indeed as an audience we did. But stories were equally shared in the spaces when thumbs stopped moving. And this makes perfect sense. We learned through Mark that the basic song of the kalimba is a call and response between the left and right hands, in a dialogue of note combinations. And like this pattern in song, throughout the night, music and verbal stories played off one another. As did the performers and the audience with their own emotional responses, even with their tears. We were one community engaged in the oral culture of storytelling, made possible through the kalimba.
Titos said this: “When we listen together, we grow together.” And with this in mind we traveled in many different directions. The evening held no tidy wrapping of one story, as is true of life itself. And this was shared through inspiring folktales, original song compositions, and impassioned speech on grave injustices of yesterday and today—the slavery experienced by African people to name one, the isolation of elders in present day communities to name another. Variously, the stories shared pain and hope. There was magic, and there was joy. There was promise in the knowledge that there are mouths to speak, ears to listen, and the heart’s longing to share. And in knowing that there is always more.
The kalimba is a story of past and present. It is a musical instrument imbued with time and history. In its physical form, the kalimba augments and graces the process of story-making - expressing the elements of setting, characters, and events. Mark shared a story of the kalimba's physical symbolism: the wood of the kalimba body represents the earth, and the kalimba tines represent the living creatures on the earth. When the tines are played, the living things are acting (a dog running in a field, wind blowing through a village). The ultimate, unifying element of the story is the rattling sound made by tiny beads on each of the tines. This vibration is the voice of the ancestors reacting to the events. Thumbs and hearts play the song story, and the ancestors respond.
So when Mark tells us that in playing the kalimba, this miraculous instrument, “we honor those that came before,” we really do. The kalimba reaches into its past—several thousand years—while songs are meaningfully composed in the present day and in the present moment. Titos stated: “It’s 2016. It is time for us to tell our story.” And under the dark, starry magic of a new-moon Arizona sky, stories were told. Stories of past and present merged within the powerful setting of community—where story is witnessed and shared.
Our evening came to completion with a roaring jam, when two members of the Baba Marimba group joined Mark and Titos on the stage. Heidi Wilson played solos on the sax. Robert “Swami” Peizer played the drum, as did additional guests in the room. Tabitha danced. Those in the audience clapped, laughed, and grooved in their seats. The kalimba did its story work. The kalimba unfurled its magic.
Mark's rich experience with the kalimba can be found throughout his Kalimba Magic website, in venues around Tucson, and through Baba Marimba, Mark's “world beat” musical group here in Tucson. You can connect with "Papa" Titos Sompa on his FaceBook page. He travels widely in the USA teaching African dance, drumming, and kalimba.