Interview with Louise Sloman-Fuller
The administrator who keeps the kalimbas coming!


When I get kalimbas from South Africa and I have questions or problems with my order, or when I have ideas for a new kalimba, or when I am looking for more info to inform my brand new non-profit venture Tuning in to Africa, it's usually Louise Sloman-Fuller who helps me out.

Louise is the cheery face of African Musical Instruments (AMI, the makers of the Hugh Tracey kalimba). She interacts with people like me from all over the world who are looking for the best kalimbas that money can buy.

Louise is also the force that connects AMI Director Christian Carver and The Kalimba Team.

AMI is situated on the outskirts of Grahamstown, South Africa, only a quarter mile outside the downtown district of shops and churches, where people bring their cows to graze the grass along the stream that's across the street from AMI.

I sat down with Louise Sloman-Fuller in June of 2008 in the small garden outside the front door of African Musical Instruments. A loud bell signalled the start of morning tea time. Before it had even stopped ringing, joyful marimba music started up as the five-piece ensemble of AMI workers began their favorite tea-time activity. While Louise has only been at AMI for five years, it is clear to everyone that AMI runs on well-greased wheels thanks to this dedicated and resourceful administrator.

Louise: Officially I'm the admin person, but I do just about anything. I deal mostly with orders coming in and going out, but when Christian is away, I do what I can of what he has to do too. Sometimes I fold boxes for Mark [Komsana] when we have an urgent order to go out, and I've sanded kalimbas on occasion.

A car alarm goes off down the street, and two black men push a cart full of rusty metal towards the recycler at the end of the street. These unemployed men will get enough money for some food, or some alcohol, or some cigarettes, and the metal will be shipped to China, made into skyscrapers, or turned into consumer goods, and sold to you, me, and everyone else.

Louise's brother-in-law, David Fuller, comes by holding my favorite kalimba. David is a luthier who came back to South Africa from Canada, and is now employed by AMI to help streamline the kalimba construction process and to improve kalimba quality. I had lent him my favroite kalimba, the blonde Bb Treble, to try to understand what makes it so special. David played a scale on the kalimba. He smiled and looked at the light yellow color of the kalimba wood.

David: The basic thing is - that's the sapwood you know - the outer part of the tree. So all these notions of quarter-sawing the wood [which would put just a streak of sapwood at the edge of the kalimba body] just go out the window.

Mark: It's not supposed to be one of the fine ones, but it's my favorite musical instrument in the world.

David sees the digital recorder as Louise mouths the word "interview," and David sheepishly walks away.

Mark: Louise, what is your background?

Louise: I have a Fine Arts degree. Among other things, I have taught Print Making, and I lectured at a teacher's training college up in the rural areas. I also worked with women in Craft Co-ops. I eventually left the rural areas because I got tired of always being the person everyone went to when they had a problem. [Mark notes that Louise is actually still in that role here at AMI.] Maybe I am just resigned to it now. Isn't that what mothers do? Sort out problems?

I returned to Cape Town where I studied. I've always made my own jewelry and sold it and printed cloth. I've always lived and been friendly with musicians, and when I moved from Cape Town back to Grahamstown, I met up with James [Fourie] who was doing this job before me. I'd known James at University, and he was looking for an assistant. I read the advert in the newspaper, and thought I'd apply. I phoned to find out what the job actually entailed. Christian said to me "Oh, you don't have a music background, I don't think it will work." So I left it, and exactly a year later they phoned me up and asked if I was still looking for a job, and I said yes, and they said to come in and try to see if I could do the job. They put me on three month's probation, and I've been here for five years!

Mark: So how do you like the job?

Louise: I enjoy the work very much. I actually find the fact that it's not the same every day very stimulating. I deal with different things and different kinds of people who come in daily. But I also find it very stressful because, at the end of the day, I'm the one that's responsible for orders coming in and orders going out and, if there are any problems, they are mine. I find it difficult dealing with the stress, but I've just got to work out a way.

Mark: You should start playing the kalimba! It's a great stress reliever!

Louise: You know, whenever the electricity cuts, I grab my karimba and go sit on the bench in the back garden and I play there. I just mess around with rhythms. I just fiddle.

Mark: I fiddled for about 10 years before I wrote my first song.

Louise: I bought an 8-Note because the 8-Notes fit my hands nicely. I want to play some recognizable tunes on the 8-Note - Twinkle Twinkle Little Star perhaps.

But - back to the subject of work! The nature of the work is that you can start out the day thinking you've got one or two things to do, and within five minutes there will be a phone call, and someone will come in, and another phone call, and suddenly your day's full.

Mark: I've never called you on the phone!

Louise: But you've sent me lots of emails! That is the first thing I do every morning - I come in about an hour before everyone else, and I do my emails - to see if there is anything I need to work on, and then I know what my day will be like. So from day to day it's very different.

Mark: So you send kalimbas all over the world - tell me some of the experiences you've had sending them.

Louise thinks...

Louise: I'm trying to work out a way of being diplomatic. Some people can be very rude and some very sexist. There are some orders I pay special attention to. There was one person who ordered from us who lived in Korea. I couldn't quite work out what age he was, but I thought he was quite young, because he needed to get permission from his parents and his teacher. But I was quite impressed that this person in Korea would get himself together to compose these emails in English and go on this great adventure to buy all these kalimbas and sell them. I have since found out that this was a woman who has a school where she teaches children music. She travels all around the world giving workshops. Just shows how one can misread a situation from written words! I still think it is amazing how far kalimbas have spread and that people make so much effort to get hold of them.

Mark: What instruments are your favorites here?

Louise: I must say I like the kalimbas, but I love the marimbas - I think it's mostly because - I'm getting emotional here - because my son has gotten into marimbas. When I was a child I begged my mother to let me play a musical instrument - she said "No you're doing too much already." She was told at an early age, that she was tone deaf. I think she cut herself off from everything musical at that point. I don't remember any music in our house growing up and she never encouraged us to get involved in anything musical. It seems she never considered that music education would last forever. I, eventually, taught myself to play the guitar. But when I started working here, Jeffrey (my son) was introduced to the marimbas at school, and later he started working with Vuyani - one of the guys who makes the marimbas - and he has just taken off. They say when you have a child, you start reliving your own childhood - It's like that part of me that was lacking is being fulfilled in him. And this year he started his own band. (He's 14!)

He got a scholarship to attend Kingswood College, and one of the draws was that he could carry on playing marimbas - they had just bought two sets. He soon discovered he was with beginners, and he got very frustrated. We went to talk to the head of the music school, and he said "We're clearly not fulfilling your needs - would you like to get a band together, of people you know, who are more advanced?" And he asked Vuyani (an AMI employee who makes and plays marimbas) if he would come and teach them. Vuyani plays in a different style from the people who are in the schools.

Wherever you go, there are different styles of marimba music, based on the traditions of the community and the needs of the community. [Note: there are marimba makers all over South Africa now - Cape Town, Johanesburg, East London - but the first company to make marimbas in South Africa was Power Marimbas. They employed Michael Dyasi who is the person who has been making Marimbas the longest in SA. He is still working at AMI. Power Marimbas was taken over by African Musical Instruments in 1998.] For example, the standard marimbas we make here, are tuned to standard C and Eb. The standard C's developed out of the needs of schools, who were used to the western music system, and the Eb's (sometimes called Xhosa tuning) developed out of the needs of Catholic mission churches, that needed instruments that people could sing to.

Jeffrey has learned from a number of music teachers, and he has chosen Vuyani's way. It's been so nice for me to watch. Sometimes he teaches me parts. I'm hoping that if we have marimbas at home, we'll be able to play more often.

Mark: The mission of AMI is to spread music.

Louise: And I'm getting the benefit of it. I remember the first time I played with Margie, my teacher and the mother of one of Jeffrey's bandmates, for more than an hour. We had had a few lessons, and then we had one long lesson where we played every single tune we had learned. Afterwards, my whole body had vibrations going through it, and I had to sit and wait for it to calm down before I could walk home.

Mark: So, everybody at AMI has a kalimba?

Louise: Everyone who works at AMI gets a kalimba when they are accepted as a permanent employee. Everyone works through a trial period to begin with. At the end of this time they are accepted as permanent employees.

Mark: It's like a badge of acceptance.

Louise: And people take pride in it. Oupa and Lena have said to me that they have their kalimba on the mantelpieces at their homes, because often people will ask them "What do you do?" and then they show them.

Mark: What are your hopes for the future of AMI?

Louise: I hope, and maybe foresee, that we'll be able to spread the instruments more, into schools - and there won't be such a divide between those people who order from overseas. At the moment, it's foreign people who know more about the kalimbas than people in South Africa. Even in Grahamstown, I come across people who say, "What do you do?" and I explain, and they say, "Oh, I didn't even know there was a place like that here." I feel the opening of doors all the time. It would be wonderful if we got to be better known and people could learn more about the music. Gareth, who has joined us recently, is talking about going out on the road, performing and doing workshops. I think that is what we've needed for a long time - someone to go out and play the instruments, to promote what we do. When that happens I think things will become more stable. At the moment, there are times when things are very unstable, and it's largely due to money.

Mark: I'm trying to do my part!

Louise: You're doing a big part.

Mark: I remembered when I started Kalimba Magic, I was shocked to find out there were only 16 or 17 people working at AMI, and I had this vision of getting a million people to play kalimbas, and a vision of 100 people working at AMI. Looking back, I realize it was a bit unrealistic, but I STILL have that vision. I mean, the kalimba is such an instrument of such joy. Things are changing. Two years ago, I could go a week between orders in the dead of the summer. Now, I get several kalimba orders each day, even in the slow times. So things are changing.

Louise: Yes, things are changing, and I think it's because of your website. I notice, when I read your newsletter, and you have an article on the Chromatic Kalimba, within a day we start getting orders for that. Even Stigglebout, in Holland, after your article on the Chromatic, sent me an email that said, "I don't know why, but we are getting a lot of orders for the Chromatics." I wrote back that it's because Mark has been advertising them in his newsletter. So I think your newsletter and your website are doing a lot for us... and for you. About three months ago, I said to Sylvester, "Every time I get a newsletter from Mark, I'm going to send it to you and I want you to see it as your homework - you need to read that newsletter, because you are going to get requests and questions about what was in the newsletter, and you need to be prepared to answer those questions."

Mark: Here's something interesting, because it was YOU who actually lit the fire under me for the Chromatic.

Louise: It just got to the point where there were more and more questions about them [the chromatics] and I thought, "Now is the time." That is when I contacted you.

Mark: And shortly after that, I met Sharon Eaton of KTabS for the first time (we had been working together over email for about two years before that). Sharon had come up with the Chromatic idea four years ago, and you had sent her a prototype back then. Anyway, she said "Look, I can play this song on the Chromatic," and I was like "Woooah!" and took video of it and posted it on the web, and all of a sudden, everyone was interested! I knew it could be done - she actually arranged the tines in a special way that makes a lot of sense. Well, it's just one of many possible ways of arranging the notes. I can think of another way (G), and in the next few months, I hope people explore and figure out other useful note arrangements.

Louise: But you see why I say that one cannot see oneself in isolation in this kind of work because ultimately everybody is working together, and it's necessary - because everybody feeds off of everyone else. We wouldn't be where we are if we were all in isolation...

Mark: We are all part of a big spiritual organism...

Louise: ...and if we can all work together with generosity and acceptance, and not see it as wanting to steal someone's idea, or wanting to steal someone's product... what could we achieve? Working with musicians and instruments I find that often people are very closed and selfish. But even in the workplace, working together, it's necesary for us to rely on each other. If we didn't rely on each other, basically, you wouldn't get your product. We have got to the point where we all work very well together, as a team, at AMI. When somebody is not there it is very obvious.

Mark: It's a very exciting time. Sharon Eaton got into the game because she bought one of my books, which inspired her to make KTabS. She considered herself a novice musician, but she realized that she had a contribution to make. And then the chromatic idea came. She hasn't mastered it, but she was the first person to make music on it. We all have a part to play, and we are all approaching it in openness.

Louise: I've communicated with her quite a bit - and I enjoy the communications, because she really is an open, generous person. She sent me a copy of her book. I could see it selling very well in churches and schools here, but the cover is very soft. So she's given me permission to reproduce it in a way that would work for us - with a harder cover. When we need the books, I go to our printer, and they print them [with hard covers], and I send her money for each book - which is amazing!

Mark: That is so cool - it's trust - people being willing to share what they have to offer, the trusting that the person they are sharing with will be fair to them.

Louise: But also realizing that everybody's going in the same direction, and everybody's doing the best they can.

Louise Sloman-Fuller on race in South Africa:

There's a book you must read. The woman who wrote it lived in Grahamstown while writing it. It's called The Sunburned Queen, written by Hazel Crampton. It's about a little girl who was shipwrecked on the Wild Coast of South Africa in the 1730s - she was a little English girl. Her parents were British colonials in India, and she had been sent back home with her Indian nanny as companion, because they didn't know how to deal with the sickness and diseases in India and they thought it would be safer for her to go back to England. At that time, there were so many shipwrecks, and people were adopted by the tribes along the coast and became integrated into the indigenous peoples. Later the whole idea of Apartheid that developed was so false - because everybody is of mixed blood really - even though there are some of us who don't want to admit it.

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