After building over 100 different prototype instruments, Hugh Tracey brought easy-to-play, western-tuned kalimbas to the world in 1954.
Hugh Tracey Label on a Vintage Treble Kalimba
When Hugh Tracey founded ILAM (the International Library of African Music) in 1954, he knew he would need a funding source to keep it going. That same year he filed business papers to start African Musical Instruments (AMI) which would make and sell African instruments to the world. His idea was that by selling kalimbas around the world, he could both inspire interest in African music and make money to pay for ILAM's operating expenses.
New Tuning and Note Layout for the Hugh Tracey Kalimba
By using the diatonic western scale and the alternating left and right note layout, Hugh Tracey realized that he had created a new instrument that lent itself to playing easy and beautiful western harmonies, using simple rules of thumb (to coin a phrase!).
Hugh Tracey Made Over 100 Prototype Kalimbas to Finalize His Design
Creative Playthings, the first Hugh Tracey DIstributor: "We'll take 10,000 kalimbas!"
The first kalimbas Hugh Tracey took to market were Treble Kalimbas. The Alto and Celeste Treble came much later. In the early 1960s, Hugh took a few kalimbas with him as he lectured on African music around the United States. He met with executives at Creative Playthings, and they were so tickled by the diminutive instruments that they ordered 10,000 kalimbas! The company African Musical Instruments (AMI) was up and running. As soon as Hugh Tracey returned home, a small factory was set up back in Krugersdorp, South Africa. Hugh’s son Paul Tracey ran the shop in those early days. It was a busy and exciting time.
Printed on the side of an original AMI Treble Kalimba box, you can see "Creative Playthings, Princeton, New Jersey."
1968 Treble and Modern Treble from the Front
1968 Treble and Modern Treble from the Back
From the back, the design of the Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba has remained very similar. The "z-bracket" pressure bar on the front used to be attached with five bicycle spoke screws in the back, while now it is attached by sinking five screws into a block of wood on the front. This, along with slightly thicker face wood makes the modern Hugh Tracey kalimbas a bit heavier. Also the placement and the shape of the vibrato holes on the back are a bit different. The modern labels now have a web site address, where the old labels had South African patent numbers. And the modern Hugh Tracey kalimbas come with an optional 1/4 inch jack attached to an internal microphone or pickup. But the wood is still kiaat, the metal is still spring steel, the instrument is still tuned and set up the same way; in all, the vintage and new kalimbas sound remarkably similar and still make the same great music. The minimal changes that have taken place in the design of Hugh Tracey kalimbas since their introduction to the world is a testament to the work that Dr. Tracey put into all those prototypes. He designed a great instrument indeed!