Feb 18, 2012

Vol. 7, Num. 1

Kalimba Magic

Black History Month

The Kalimba and African History
An Opportunity for Teachers

1723 Kalimba
Mozambique kalimba player, 1723

Teachers! Check out a treat for you at the end of this article.

The kalimba is a powerful instrument - a powerful symbol of ancient African genius, and a powerful tool for peace and for multi-racial understanding.

The mbira is an instrument that helps the Shona people of Zimbabwe to connect to the spirits of their ancestors.

Many African Americans are the descendents of slaves who were torn from their rich African culture homes. Malcolm X took this name because he did not know his real name. The "X" represents not just his true family name, but the entirety of his lost African culture.

The kalimba gives all of us an opportunity to connect with ancient African culture. As most kalimbas are non-traditional instruments, this connection is more symbolic than literal. That doesn't make it any less emotionally real. Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire, inspired and educated a whole generation about the kalimba. Players like Kevin Spears and Kevin Nathanial find their own paths back to Africa with their own compositions, reflecting their understanding of what African music is about.

1723 Kalimba
Maurice White with Hugh Tracey Treble

On the other hand, there are rich traditions such as the mbira - there is speculation that the mbira tradition goes back to Great Zimbabwe some 800 years ago. There are dozens of songs in this tradition - many of them are newer, but the lore is that some of them go back to the birth of the mbira. Due to a number of fervent promoters of the mbira dzavadzimu, there are more mbira players in the world today than ever before, and the mbira tradition will never be lost - unlike some other less popular traditional African kalimbas whose old players are not being replaced by young players, so some of those traditional instruments are dying out.

Andrew Tracey believes he can see even further back into the past than the mbira dzavadzimu. At the core of the mbira and mbira songs are a set of eight or nine notes that appear over and over in central African kalimbas, and Andrew lays out the case for these notes being the original African mbira. In fact, he says that Father Dos Santos, the first European to document the kalimba in 1586, almost surely wrote about an instrument made up of these nine notes.

Stella Chiweshe
Stella Chiweshe with mbira dzavadzimu

The nine notes of the primal karimba or student karimba make up the lower row of notes on the karimba (aka mbira nyunga nyunga), and most of the traditional karimba pieces have essential parts that are played mainly on these notes. Hence, the student karimba actually has a repertoire of songs that could be very ancient - possibly going back to 1300 years ago when the iron age reached the Zambezi valley, when Gerhardt Kubik posits that metal tined kalimbas were first made in Africa.

When I play these potentially ancient songs on the student karimba, I feel that I can touch the genius of the Africans who lived over a thousand years ago and wrote this music that sounds remarkably complex and remarkably modern.

The student karimba is a perfect instrument for young students today to play to learn about traditional African music and be touched by the genius of ancient African music.



Do you want a free student karimba and a free student karimba book? We are giving away four student karimbas and student karimba books, hopefully to four different teachers around the country. If you are a teacher, please write me a paragraph about your class, how old your students are, and what you plan to do with the student karimba. Submit your entry by March 1, 2012 using out CONTACT FORM, and include your school's name, address, and phone number. I will pick the four letters I am most impressed with and Kalimba Magic will gift three karimbas and books, while Steve Hackley will gift the fourth karimba and book.

If you are not a teacher, why not forward this on to teachers that you know?

We plan to announce the winners in our next newsletter.

Until then, you can download this Kalimba History PDF and use it as the basis for a Black History Month presentation! Also available is a Kalimba Fact Sheet PDF to hand out to students.

Familt Tree
Top: Two mbiras
Middle: Two karimbas
Center: Student karimba (original mbira?)

The genius of ancient Africans who invented instruments like the kalimba and the marimba demonstrates an uncanny grasp of several important physical principles... I am giving myself the assignment of writing a presentation on the science of ancient African instruments. This will be due February 2013. —Mark

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