Nov. 28, 2014

Vol. 9, Num. 3

Kalimba Magic NEWS

The Kalimba in South America, 1772-1777
by Ivodne Galatea & Mark Holdaway

Steadman Illustration
Kalimba illustration in Stedman's Narrative,
possibly by William Blake

John Gabriel Stedman was in the Dutch military and volunteered for a stint in Surinam, South America, to assist putting down a revolt of slaves of African descent. He spent five years there, married a slave woman named Joanna and had a child with her, but left her in Surinam when he returned to Europe (he asked her to come with him, but she refused).

Stedman was so affected by the mistreatment of the slaves that he wrote a book about the things he had experienced. This 1796 publication is properly called, The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America, from the year 1772 to 1777: elucidating the history of that country, and describing its productions, viz, quadrupeds, birds, fishes, reptiles, trees, shrubs, fruits, & roots: with an account of the indians of Guiana, & negroes of Guinea.

Stedman writes glowingly of the character and culture of the descendents of Africans, such that his book's portrayal of the cruelty and abuses of slavery became an important tool for early abolitionists and may very well have inspired William Blake, the book's illustrator, to embrace the abolitionist cause. However, in spite of all he had witnessed, Stedman himself never became an abolitionist, which is rather perplexing.

from the book

Nevertheless, the book contains valuable historical documentation of the presence of the kalimba in South America at this time. Stedman gives a lovely description of the music the slaves brought from Africa, and of how they adapted local resources to making their musical instruments. He describes their music and the instruments they built with unequivocal respect.

Here is his description of the "wooden tongued" kalimba:

No 10, is the Loango-bania. This I thought exceedingly curious, being a dry board, on which are laced, and kept down by a transverse bar, different sized elastic splinters of the palm-tree, like pieces of whalebone, in such a manner that both ends are elevated by two other bars that are fixed under them; and the above apparatus being placed on.

No 11, which is a large empty callebash to promote the sound; the extremities of the splinters are snapt by the fingers, something in the manner of a piano-forte, when the music has a soft and very pleasing effect.

There are paintings from the early 19th century by Jean-Baptiste Debret of Brazilian slaves playing kalimbas in Decio Gioielli's CD liner notes. Those paintings were done around 1830, or about 55 years after Stedman's observations. It is interesting that the berimbau, also depicted in Debret's illustrations, survived into the current era, but the kalimba seems to have disappeared completely from African culture in South America some time between 1830 and the 1900s.

Elsewhere in the New World, kalimbas persisted from times of slavery to the modern era in the Caribbean islands, especially as the bass kalimba also known as the rhumba box or marimbula. In New Orleans, the marimba brett was a kalimba that was popular among African Americans and was described by George Cable in 1886 (probably imported from the Caribbean region), but apparently this did not survive into the modern era either.

So why didn't kalimba use spread to the white population in 1770s Surinam, 1830s Brazil, or 1880s New Orleans? An early version of what we now know as the banjo came to the New World via African slaves and even became a signature instrument of "Dixie." So why not the kalimba? The kalimba is a significant musical invention, another gift of African musical genius to the world, one which can enable a deep spiritual connection with the cosmos.

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