Maurice White’s “Evil Tuning” – Using African Sensibilities in Pop Music

Maurice White of the R&B/Funk/Pop band “Earth, Wind & Fire” came out of Chicago at the same time the AfroHarp was being made. He surely held an AfroHarp in his hands. But Maurice White was following the lead of  his kalimba mentor, Phil Cohran. Cohran had an African-made pentatonic-tuned kalimba. Unlike the AfroHarp or the karimba, Cohran’s kalimba had the tines all on the same level. That speaks to the diversity of traditional kalimbas in Africa. Maurice White couldn’t find a traditional African-made instrument like Cohran’s. Instead, he found the Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba, in a diatonic “Do Re Mi fa So La Ti Do” tuning.

Maurice quickly retuned the Treble into a pentatonic tuning. There are many, many ways of doing this, but the way Maurice White chose to do it pushed the tines that made half-step intervals onto the nearest note in the pentatonic scale.  This resulted in several notes occurring twice on the kalimba, one on the right side, and the other on the left. This permitted Maurice to “trill” a note – to play it faster than if there were only one version of that note on the kalimba.

Kalimba Magic has long sold the Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba in “Evil Tuning” – so called because “Evil” was the first song I used to figure out his tuning. Since then, I surmised that White used the same tuning on essentially all of his EW&F kalimba songs. However, evidence from a number of sources indicates that he may have changed the details of his “partially redundant pentatonic A minor tuning” through his 28-year career as the world’s most famous kalimba player.

Maurice always played the Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba – you can get one here in “Evil” tuning.

My personal favorite kalimba (on most days) is the Hugh Tracey Alto. In the above video, I have tuned my Alto Kalimba+PU to a “partially redundant pentatonic A minor tuning” that doubles the same notes as Maurice White. I don’t think Maurice ever played the Alto kalimba in this tuning. But if he did, I bet he would have wailed on it, sort of like this.

You can hear me trill the high A notes (far right and far left – at 1:25 for example), the middle A notes (the blue tines in the middle of the left and right sides), and the middle G notes (just inward from the middle G notes). Having redundant notes on the left and right side of a kalimba is one particular aspect of several traditional kalimbas. That trill gives you power and stability in your music. And it reinforces certain notes, such as the root note, making you sound better than maybe you actually are.

What I love about the pentatonic scale, and redundant pentatonic scales in particular, is the freedom it gives the player. It might look like I am just wildly playing, moving my thumbs this way and that, without really knowing what I am doing. And for the most part, that would be an accurate assessment of my kalimba playing in this video. But oh, what fun it is to be wild and free!

Yes, I borrowed from “Fly Like an Eagle” and “I Shot the Sheriff”. And I borrowed from the spirit of Maurice White and the essence of African Pentatonic Music. And maybe a bit from Jimmy Hendrix.

But you see, that is the path of the kalimba. From Africa. Changed to work with today. And then mixed up again and reformed into something that is new and old at the same time.

You can get the Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba in Evil Tuning. Remember to select the Evil Tuning.

Or, you can get the Hugh Tracey Alto + PU in Evil Tuning. Remember to select the Evil Tuning.

Read more about Maurice White, the AfroHarp, and the Hugh Tracey Kalimbas:

The AfroHarp – Another Neo-African Kalimba in 1970 American Culture

The kalimba meets pop culture

Words About Maurice White’s Kalimba Playing

Maurice White’s Kalimba Tuning Revisited

How Maurice White’s Kalimba Playing Touched My Life


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