A wonderful “first instrument” to experiment with melody and sound is the thumb piano, kalimba or mbira. Mark Holdaway contributed this article to our blog from his Kalimba News series. Need more in depth info? His kalimba history PDF (below) is amazing, with many outstanding historical pictures and background proving that this is an instrument that is as exciting to learn about as it is to play!
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.
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.
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.
– Mark Holdaway.
Explore the Kalimba Magic website:
Kalimba History And Instruction Download