Discover The Kalimba or Mbira and It’s African Roots

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!

Pictured Above: two mbira dzavadzimu; middle: two karimbas; center: student karimba

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.

Stella Chiweshe with mbira dzavadzimu

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:

http://www.kalimbamagic.com

Kalimba History And Instruction Download

http://kalimbamagic.com/newsletters/newsletter7.01/newsletter7.01_assets/BlackHistoryMonth_2012.pdf

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The Sistrum – An Instrument That Dates Back To Ancient Egypt

Illustration by Madcow Designs (www.madcow-designs.com)

Almost every culture in the world has created some form of instrument that will either shake, rattle or roll.  Ancient Egypt is no exception.

If you could travel back in time to the days of the pyramids and pharaohs you might see a special kind of hand-held rattle called a sistrum.  Played mainly by women, it was moved from side to side and the bangles would rock back and forth creating a unique sound and a distinctive rhythm.

What exactly did a sistrum look like?  We’ve created a coloring page based on many of the hieroglyphics and historical data that we’ve found. We’ve also come up with some fun ways that you can make your own sistrum at home.  You can either start with a wire coat hanger or you can take a nature walk and look for a branch shaped like the letter “Y”.  And your bangles?  They can be jingle bells, pop-top tabs, metal washers or even buttons beads or seeds.  Whatever you use, you’re sure to create an amazing sounding instrument that’s both old and new at the same time!

Download – A Sistrum Coloring Page

Download Instructions – How To Make a Recycled Sistrum (With a Clothes Hanger)

Download Instructions – How To Make a Natural Sistrum (With a Tree Branch)

Tibetan Singing Bowls – Can A Bowl Really Sing?

One of the most exciting things about exploring instruments from around the globe is how completely unique and different they are.  Shapes, sizes, materials and manner of playing instruments vary from culture to culture or from country to country. One great example of an unusual instrument is a bronze or metal bowl from the region of Tibet, Nepal or Northern India.  Called “singing bowls”, these instruments date back to the dawn of the bronze age – about 3,000 years ago – and are pictured in some of the oldest artifacts found in this region.

But can a bowl really sing?  These specially crafted metal bowls do create beautiful tones when they are struck gently with a mallet or when pressure is applied to their sides in a circular motion.  In the same way that a water glass creates a ringing tone when rubbed with a finger, these bowls ring out in tones that are considered to be relaxing, meditative and even healing or therapeutic by many.  The beautiful and complex sounds they create is the reason they are said to “sing”.

How big are singing bowls?  You can find smaller singing bowls that fit in the palm of your hand.  You can also find sizes and shapes that are as big as a large soup pot or a cauldron!  In addition, there are also crystal bowls that are played in the same manner as the metal singing bowls.  These are especially beautiful in sound and appearance and many believe that they possess even greater healing properties.

Singing bowls can be very simple and plain or they can be beautifully adorned with symbols and writing such as Buddhist mantras, a type of repeated prayer.  Commonly manufactured in Nepal, China and Japan; singing bowls can be found as part of Buddhist prayers and meditation throughout Asia, as well as part of yoga or spiritual practices around the world.

Singing bowls are also used in classrooms in a variety of different ways.  They can help students focus, call for quiet or can help a class develop better listening skills.  Timothy Lomas, a talented art teacher with a good deal of international experiences shared this description of his work: “I teach art at the IDEAL School of Manhattan. It is an inclusion school which means that we have students with special needs (Down Syndrome, ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, etc) alongside typically developing students. Transition time is always a challenge. To get the students settled and ready to work I introduced the Tibetan Singing Bowl. I demonstrated how to use it and passed it to the student that was the quietest and most attentive. They then would pass it to the next student they thought was ready.”  Says Timothy: “I started with one bowl but now have several and the students know to go directly to the box and pull out the bowls. It’s a great way to get the class centered and focused for a creative experience!”