The Kalimba is an instrument that has for a long time not been recognized by mainstream music, but it’s one that’s gaining popularity for its unique sound and simplicity to play. Recognition for the Kalimba is slowly but surely increasing, and there are several reasons why it is an ideal instrument for younger musicians and those new to playing instruments or who want to diversify their musical range. Both its small, portable size, and incredible ease of use – merely playing the metal tines with one’s thumbnail to create a gentle, echoing sound – are important factors in the appeal of the kalimba. But to truly understand the Kalimba, we will need to travel to the continent of its origin – Africa.
Gentle Music for the Kings
The Kalimba is generally used as the catch-all term for the instrument known as the thumb-piano, of which there are over 100 different types. Other types of thumb-piano include the mbira, sansa, and karimba, however, it was kalimba that was popularized in the mid-20th century as the name for a thumb-piano in general (including non-traditionally derived ones). The first European to document the kalimba was a Portuguese missionary, Father Dos Santos in 1586, who described the 9-note metal kalimba he listed to, naming it the “ambira”. “The players would grow their thumb nails long to play, and the instrument produced a “sweet and gentle harmony of accordant sounds”. As these instruments were not very loud, they were generally played in the king’s palace.” This shows that the Kalimba had already been a popular and respected instrument even 500 years ago, and would have been comparable to the esteem of the lute or harp.
The First Kalimbas, Plant and Metal
While we do not know the exact origins of the kalimba, it is understood to have been played for almost 3000 years, with the earliest metal-tined kalimbas originating about 1300 years ago. The Kalimba originally would have been built from available resources like bamboo or gourds, and only, later on, was metal introduced. Much like the modern guitar or piano, its development took place in many stages and evolutions over time. According to Gerhard Kubik, from his 1998 book Kalimba, Nsansi, Mbira: Lamellophone in Afrika, ‘The first kalimbas were made about 3000 years ago in west Africa around present day Cameroon, created completely of plant materials such as bamboo. Then around 1300 years ago, when the Iron Age reached the Zambezi valley in southeastern Africa, someone got the bright idea to make kalimba tines out of metal.’ Metal tines obviously last longer than plant material and produce a brighter, louder sound than the plant tines would have, making them the ideal choice for future iterations of the kalimba. Still, traditionally made kalimbas with plant tines do continue to be made by individual craftspeople.
The Zimbabwean Mbira Dzavadzimu, ‘big mbira of the ancestral spirits’
The kalimba is normally constructed of wood for its board and has between 6-10 tines and is relatively small and lightweight. However, the Shona people of Africa who live in modern-day Zimbabwe developed the Mbira Dzavadzimu, the ‘big mbira of the ancestral spirits’ which could hold up to 25 metal tines and could include a natural gourd amplifier called a deze. It played an important part in their religious ceremonies, but more importantly, shows that the kalimba is a truly wide-ranging African instrument that has been transformed multiple times as it was adopted by different peoples and
cultures. It was not until the 1950s and 60s, however, that the European interest in the Kalimba as a musical instrument truly took off, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hugh Tracey.
Hugh Tracey and the International Library of African Music
Though you might be forgiven for assuming that Dr. Hugh Tracey was merely another European taking the efforts of African artists and re-purposing them as his own, the truth is far from it. Born in 1903, Tracey’s contributions to the kalimba and African music as a whole started in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, working with his brother on a tobacco farm in the 1920s. His father had died when he was young, and with the family being unable to send him onto higher education, he was instead sent to help provide an income for the family. 
While on the farm, Tracey soon developed a great interest and passion for the music of the native workers and their culture, which introduced him to the mbira and many of the other instruments of Africa. His interest led him to prominent musicians such as Gustav Holst, who encouraged him to research African music at a time when most white Europeans were aloof to it.
It became Tracey’s lifelong goal to record the music and instruments of the diverse cultures of Africa, and he spent numerous trips during the 1920s and 30s to experience them and document them. Even as western music threatened to erase the legacy of African music, Tracey worked hard to ensure that it would remain to be heard by the world at large. It was in 1954 that ILAM, the International Library of African Music was founded by Tracey, based on contemporary research and history documents, and is one the largest repositories of African musical history. This would help ensure that African music and ideas would not be subsumed by western culture and music, and also led to Tracey’s developing interest in the mbira, and then finally to the kalimba.
ILAM, AMI, and the Hugh Tracey Kalimba
Tracey’s desire to continue to record and document African music culminated in ILAM, but Tracey’s interest led him to design musical instruments based on what he had spent years researching. In 1954, the same year he founded ILAM, he began his own business to help bring in funds for further expeditions. This was AMI, or African Musical Instruments. In doing so, Tracey crafted a uniquely designed kalimba called the Hugh Tracey Kalimba. This was different to traditional kalimbas, as it used the standard do-re-mi scale of western music, arranged with alternating left and right notes on the metal tines so that modern western music could be played on it. Chiefly it was constructed with the plentiful kiaat wood local to the region. This version of the kalimba became the most popular style of kalimba in the western musical world. Maurice White of the band Earth, Wind and Fire used a Treble Kalimba first in 1973 and again in 1974 with the songs ‘Evil’ and ‘Kalimba Story’, which introduced millions to the music of the kalimba, who fell in love with its unique sound the same way that Tracey had fallen in love with in nearly fifty years earlier. Even the soundtracks for the films Alien and Edward Scissorhands have benefitted from the sound of the Kalimba!
Through the decades, people have discovered the unique, delightful sounds of the kalimba and taken it up in their performance. Its simplicity to play, its light weight that makes it ideal to play when on the go or for younger musicians, and the ability to sing and perform on it at the same time, have endeared the kalimba to artists across all continents and all genres. The kalimba continues to enthrall music lovers to this day. Head on over to ashthorpe.com to discover the kalimba for yourself today!