Kalimbas and Mbiras

The Kalimba is a modern evolution of the African thumb piano, “mbira,” that dates back over 800 years. Its name literally means, “little music,” deriving from the size of the instrument and the soft tones it produces. Kalimbas are known by many different names, depending on the country or region in which they are found. Zambia’s kalimba is called, “Luvale,” while Zimbabwe uses the terms, “Karimba,” “Mbira,” or “Matapee.” Other names include, “Sansa,” “Marimbula,” or just “Thumb Piano.” It is a member of the Lamellophone family of musical instruments. In the early twentieth century, ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, discovered the kalimba in Africa and brought it back to Europe.

Kalimba are modern mbiras, but with a sound box with 20-24 metal keys or tongues (called lamellas) attached on the top. There are three different models: the treble, celeste and alto. The Celeste Kalimba is flat, has no sound box, and produces the crispest sound of the three types of kalimbas. The Celeste Kalimba has a 17 note range. The Treble Kalimba is much like the Celeste, but is built with a sound box to help the notes resonate. It, too, has a 17 note range. The Alto Kalimba is built the same way as the Treble Kalimba, including a sound box, but only has a 15 note range. Modern kalimbas may only have five or seven keys, but still produce a wonderful, mystical sound. Kalimbas today are constructed with boxes, gourds and even coconut shells, each lending its own unique sound qualities to the instrument.

Carol of the Bells on Kalimba

Playing the Kalimba is different than most other instruments. The note arrangement differs, as the lowest notes are in the center of the instrument, and gradually get higher as the tines or keys get shorter. Plucking the keys produces the best sound, and while the instrument may be small many modern groups are incorporating its sound into their music, including Genesis, Earth, Wind & Fire, Jo Mango, King Crimson, John Mayer, Laura Barrett, and Vampire Weekend.

The Kalimba is an instrument rich in history and various sounds that can accentuate any group, drum circle or music recording. By incorporating the kalimba into your music, you are honoring the music of Africa and its special sound. No matter what you call it, the kalimba is an instrument that can be an enhancement to current sound or even a solo instrument that brings out your fun-loving, carefree and child-like whimsy, no matter which version is played.

29th Oct 2014

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