A Message from Mark Holdaway
On Loving a Kalimba

Happy Mark

Four months ago when I first started selling the Premium Kalimbas, the finest Hugh Tracey kalimbas culled from the rest of my inventory for the purpose of funding our nonprofit work in Africa, the first of these sold in a matter of days.

Three months ago, I offered four more Premium Kalimbas, and only one of them sold. I wondered why they weren't selling, and then I remembered: the first batch had a nice bath in shea butter, and they looked absolutely beautiful, but I hadn't treated the second batch with shea butter.

So, last month when I was deciding what I was going to do about the Premium Kalimbas, an idea came to me: to give the unsold Premium Kalimbas a bath in shea butter and take new sexy photos of them with their moisturized wood (OK, my photos are a bit more like mug shots - but you know what I mean).

I picked up the box karimba that Christian Carver, director of AMI, had made for me, and opened my jar of shea butter. I had put this instrument up for sale as a Premium instrument - it is a unique instrument and would do well for someone. Had Christian really made it for me, or did he have someone in his shop make it to his specifications? I dipped my finger into the butter and pulled out a gloop and started spreading it over the wood of the box karimba, and it all became clear to me. As I gently carressed the wood with my fingers, rubbing in the shea butter, I could see that this wooden box was not made by the people who usually make them. The box, while quite smooth, was more angular at the edges. The way the intricate design in the face wood seemed to glisten and glow, with a changing iridescent quality as it reflected the light differently when its orientation to the eye changed, I realized this was special wood, chosen for me. This karimba was put together for me by Christian Carver! How could I sell this instrument?

In one of the more bizarre things I've done, I bought the box karimba (the one that was given to me) from myself.

As I tune up the box karimba into A minor (so I can play it with the Sansula on a recording I am doing today of different instruments the Sansula sounds good with), I realize that in time, I will ding and bang the perfect corners off of this instrument. As I make it my own, I'll get my skin oil and dirt all over it. The tines will scratch and over the years even rust. But that specialness is still there.

I'm sort of gloating over my good fortune of knowing Christian and to be able to get an instrument that he made. But most of the Hugh Tracey kalimbas, the ones that I have shipped to happy kalimba players in 58 countries world wide, really do have the feel of being special. Special to look at, special to hold, and special to play. Part of that specialness comes from the wood the kalimbas are made with - the native African resonant hardwood, kiaat. Part of that specialness comes from the people in Grahamstown, South Africa, who make the kalimbas. They put their hard work, their skill, and even their dreams into the kalimbas. And part of that specialness is the heritage of what Hugh Tracey means.

Hugh Tracey, who realized the importance of preserving traditional African music before the word ethnomusicology had been coined, started the company African Musical Instruments (AMI) in 1954 so people all over the world could have as much fun as he did playing around at the African thumb piano. Though Hugh died in 1977, AMI is still closely associated with the Tracey family, and the legacy of Hugh Tracey lives on in the instruments that his company makes.

This all sounds like PR and an advertisement, but I don't work for AMI. I sell four different brands of kalimbas. I sell the kalimbas that I play and love - each a great kalimba, or I wouldn't have it in my collection of performance instruments. I sell AMI instruments because they make the kalimba that I first fell in love with 23 and a half years ago. I am 47 years old, so I've been playing the Hugh Tracey Kalimba for half of my life. What a job I have - to share with the rest of the world one of the dearest and most beautiful things I've experienced in my life (no joke!): the Hugh Tracey kalimba.

But loving a kalimba is just the start. It is like practice for something bigger. When you love someone or something, that moves your consciousness beyond your own head. In this outward motion of love, we can be led further on the path of love. Love begets love.

—Mark Holdaway, November 20, 2009


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