Where Did Kalimba Magic Come From? 

Our story starts in 1964, when I was 2 years old. I was visiting a family friend, and on their coffee table was a Hugh Tracey Kalimba. Each time I visited, I would run to the kalimba and softly plink out mysterious melodies that seemed to play themselves. What a special time those visits were… and how I dreamed of having a kalimba of my own!

Or maybe it started in 1954 when Hugh Tracey started making the Hugh Tracey Kalimba and sending them around the world from South Africa.

Or perhaps you could say our story starts in 1920, when 17-year-old Hugh Tracey moved from England to Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), Africa, where he first heard the melodious strands of the mbira dzavadzimu in the hands of African men who worked on his brother’s tobacco farm.

Or perhaps you could consider our story starting some 1300 years ago, when the first metal-tined kalimbas were made by our African ancestors in the Zambezi Valley.

But I like to think my kalimba story starts in 1986, when I was visiting friends from college on spring break. One friend produced a Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba he had just purchased. A stranger passing on the street heard us playing, and he entered the house and asked if he could play the kalimba. When we put it in his hands, great magic happened! We were transfixed and transformed by his magical kalimba music.

Kalimba Magic began right then and there, in the magical music that flowed from this stranger’s hands. The next day, I made my long time dream come true, and I bought my first kalimba, a Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba. That was the start of my personal kalimba journey.

I played an hour of two of kalimba each day for the next 18 years. The kalimba will teach you how to play it if you are receptive. By 2004, I had gotten to be a pretty good kalimba player…but I didn’t have a lot of confidence.

But I had one friend, Betty, who believed in me. She believed that what I was doing with the kalimba was unique in the world. I had certainly forged my own path playing kalimba on my own for 18 years. Betty said I was destined to do something really great with the kalimba. And I believed her.

This was my dream, to inspire people to play kalimba and teach them to understand and to play well.

My first chance came when another friend’s autistic son wanted to take kalimba lessons from me. I thought this would be an amazing way to connect with him, and so we started lessons. However, the child could not remember the music from one lesson to the next. To write down the music that I would teach him each lesson, I invented Kalimba Tablature. Kalimba Tablature is a map of the kalimba, showing you which tines you need to play, in which order, and in which rhythm, to accomplish a piece of music. With this tablature system, anybody can follow the instructions, play the correct tines, and make music. It is a starting point for other people’s kalimba journeys.

I realized that with Kalimba Tablature, I had a golden key that would permit me to create a series of kalimba books. Each kalimba type, with it’s specific number of notes and specific tuning, is capable of different music, so each type of kalimba would need its own set of books: African music, classical music, hymns, Christmas music, Americana, folk music, pop music… I was ready to go to town with kalimba instruction!

And while imagining what my new life would be, I made a goal: to inspire one million people across the world to play kalimba. A million people! Playing kalimba, bringing a spirit of peace and joy into their lives and their families and communities… I had sat with this intention inside my heart for about three months when Christian Carver contacted me via email in 2005, asking if I could help him sell the Hugh Tracey Kalimbas. Christian runs African Musical Instruments (AMI), the company that Hugh Tracey founded in 1954, and they needed a new US distributor of the Hugh Tracey Kalimbas.

Christian just asked me to help him sell the Hugh Tracey Kalimba, the instrument that I had been playing each day for the previous 19 years. The same kalimba that I had met on a friend’s coffee table when I was 2 years old. The same kalimba that I had dreamed first of owning, and then, of writing books for.

This was the missing piece. If I was going to be selling Hugh Tracey Kalimbas, I would need to write books for them all. I would have to learn how to play every different type of kalimba well enough to teach the world to play it… or at least start it. I would have to understand how each different kalimba tuning worked. The fullness and depth of my future job flashed before my eyes.

I was the perfect person for the job, and the job was a perfect fit for me, my history, my talents, my dreams, and the timing of my life.

Of course, the answer was yes! This was my dream, to inspire people to play kalimba and teach them to understand and to play well

The kalimbas I sell reflect the journey that I am on.


My business, Kalimba Magic, offers the world high quality kalimbas and instructional materials – both physical books and PDF ebooks with live links to the sound recordings.

The kalimbas I sell reflect the journey that I am on. If I discover a new kalimba, or a new kalimba tuning that makes neat and beautiful music, I will likely start selling that kalimba and start writing instructional materials for that kalimba. As I glean understanding and insight into each kalimba that is new to me, I encapsulate that understanding into the lessons in my books and ebooks.

In recent years, I have created instructional materials for these key instruments and areas. Of course, we sell both the instruments and the instructional materials:

As I continue to discover or invent new (and old) kalimbas and tunings, I continue to grow in my own music, and I continue to share this new music and new kalimba understanding with the world through my books.

Mark Holdaway // Kalimba Magic

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