Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, on Kalimba

Free Tablature for Alto, Treble and G Chromatic Kalimbas

Jesu can be played on Alto, Treble, Bb Treble, D Treble, or Chromatic Kalimbas.

The Hugh Tracey kalimba is the work of a lifetime. From 1920 to 1954, musicologist and historian Hugh Tracey honed his experience, appreciation and understanding of African music and musical instruments. Then, in an endeavor to create a new kalimba and one that would be able to appeal to western ears, he built over 100 prototype instruments of various designs which integrated aspects of several traditional kalimbas, from about 1950 to 1954. When he felt he had perfected his design, the Treble kalimba was born, and it was followed by the deeper-voiced Alto a few years later.

But after Hugh Tracey had developed his masterpiece instrument, he had another challenge:  how could he get people interested? How could he convince them to take his kalimba – and him – seriously? The answer was, in part, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the beautiful piece by J.S. Bach that everyone knows and loves. I myself have played this enchanting song at weddings, memorial services, and silent Quaker Meeting for Worship.

Now, I give you the key to unlock this song: tablature for “Jesu” for several different kalimbas.

First 4 bars of Jesu
Beginning of “Jesu” for Alto Kalimba. When
several black dots are adjacent to one another,
play a chord by strumming the tines indicated.

I like to joke: ” ‘Jesu’ is a song that Johann S. Bach wrote when he spent a semester abroad in Johann S. Burg.” (Johannesburg, South Africa, is where Hugh Tracey kalimbas are made.) And according to Ed Morgan, a local Tucson attorney, “The kalimba is truly the instrument that Bach’s ‘Jesu’ was written for.”

How true Ed’s words seem. Hugh Tracey learned to play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on his Treble Kalimba. He performed that piece when he gave lectures on African music and the kalimba, and it would get quite a response. People had never before heard such pure and silvery music come forth… from… a funny little box with a rake on it?

I’m sure you will be excited to try it yourself, using the arrangements/formats of “Jesu” now available for free here:


A few notes about these arrangements:

  • They all fit on one page of paper, each with a first part and a second part. I usually do an A-B-A structure, which is very short but also very sweet. “DC al Fine” is a tempo marking instructing you to go back to the beginning and play until it says “Fine” (the end).
  • The “Easy Alto” and “Easy Treble” arrangements are mainly melody-only (there are some chords in the slower second part), and are a good place to start.
  • The Treble tablature is a very clean translation from the Alto. Treble and Alto have very good (and very similar) parts.
  • The G chromatic has only two back-side notes – strategically placed for a little richness. First learn the Alto version, then learn to add those two little notes – it is the smallest of all possible steps into the ocean of the Chromatic kalimba.
  • While I absolutely love ad libbing and improvisation, there is something truly amazing when you learn a piece, note for note, and play it to perfection. After you have learned every note, the music may still not be perfect, but this allows you to go deeper and deeper into the music and work on more nuanced musical issues, thus bringing perfection closer.
  • On the piano, there is a large natural separation in pitch between the left and right hand parts – the melody and harmony notes tend to be between one and two octaves apart. But on the kalimba, the melody and harmony tend to be much closer – sometimes only half a step, as at the beginning of the chorale (starting at measure 9).

Regarding playing chords, I encourage you to seek a light touch and emphasize the melody with the opposite hand. Bach usually only uses a single note in melody and a single note in harmony. Counterpoint is a feature of Bach’s music; I have added some harmony and arranged several notes at the same time – sometimes three on each side, which make chords. If you prefer a more minimalist arrangement, you should feel free to take out some harmony notes.

In the near future I am going to provide new advanced arrangements for “Jesu” that will knock your socks off, so watch this space!

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