kalimba

[Bantu, little music]
CLASSIFICATION: plucked idiophone, percussion instruments, lamella phone

Note: Although this is classified as a plucked idiophone, the tongues (lamellas) are typically depressed and released creating the same effect as being plucked. This is done with the thumbs and fingers of the performer. The tongues can also be plucked as another type of performance effect.

HISTORY: The Kalimba is a modern version of the African mbira. It can be a solo instrument or as an accompaniment to singers, musicians and dancers. In the 1920's, Hugh Tracey came from England to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to help his older brother run a tobacco farm. He became fascinated by the local music culture. Through the encouragement of prominent composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, he decided to make a study of African music and eventually create the International Library of African Music. The mbira was one of his greatest interests and created the Kalimba based on the African mbira. Introduced by Tracy in the early 1960's, Kalimba was the registered trademark for his diatonic instrument that soon became popular around the world. The word Kalimba literally means little music. It was well suited for Western music and made it easy for the performer to play harmony using both thumbs.

As with the mbira, the name Kalimba is know throughout much of Africa, but regionally, the name mbira is more commonly used in Zimbabwe, while the name Kalimba is used in Kenya, the name ikembe is used in Rhuanda, and the name likembe is used in the Congo. Other names are bit less common such as sanza, sansa, marimba, and marimbula. Additionally, there are more generic names of finger harp, gourd piano, and thumb piano that are often used in the west.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: The basic Kalimba is a modern mbira with a soundbox with metal keys or tongues (called lamellas) attached on the top. The keys or tongues are sometimes made from cane. The soundbox is Kyatt wood (an African hardwood), with keys or tongues made out of European spring steel. Home made versions can be made from old spoon handles, bicycle spokes or spring wire cut and hammered to the desired shape. The keys or tongues are plucked with the thumbs, or with combinations of thumbs and fingers. The keys usually consist of 20 to 24 metal tongues mounted across two bars at one end attached to the soundbox with a wooden dowel holding them in place. The bar closest to the soundhole serves as a bridge, the other to provide a means for the dowel to hold the keys (tongues) in place. The free ends of the keys (tongues) are positioned at different lengths to produce the variety of pitches. The length of the vibrating end of the keys (tongues) determines the pitch (a shorter key or tongue produces a higher pitch, and a longer key or tongue produces a lower pitch). 

SOUND PROPERTIES: The Kalimba produces a haunting, fluid percussive sound that is considered tranquil and enchanting. Since you can play either simultaneously or alternating between both thumbs, harmonic and rhythmic effects are possible. Many effects can be employed by plucking up or down on the keys (tongues). Although the Kalimba was created to appeal to the Western music sensibilities, many Africa musicians will employ the practice of adding buzzing effects to the instrument. This is created by wrapping the tongues with wire or adding a mirliton device. This adds an additional buzzing or humming character to the sound of the instrument which is an important sound in many of the tribal cultures. Often, snail shells or metal bottle caps are often attached to the soundboard or the soundbox to create or enhance the rich buzzing sound. The buzzing is thought to clear the mind and allow the listener to focus totally on the music. These buzzing effects are not commonly used on the diatonic versions of the Kalimba or outside of the African tribal cultures. Most recordings do not include these effects as they tend to favor the pure sounds of the instrument.

The actual Trademarked Kalimbas come in three different models, the treble, celeste and alto. The Celeste Kalimba has a flat design with a simple soundboard (without a sound box) that produces a crisp sound and has a seventeen-note range. The Treble Kalimba has the same seventeen-note range, but it also has a soundbox that provides deep resonance to distinguish it from the Celeste Kalimba. The Alto Kalimba features the same soundbox as the Treble Kalimba, but has a more limited fifteen-note range.

RANGE: The actual Trademarked Kalimbas are typically tuned to G-major and come in three different models. The Celeste Kalimba has a seventeen-note range from B2 to D5. The Treble Kalimba has the same seventeen-note range. The Alto Kalimba has a more limited fifteen-note (two-octave) range from G3 to G5.

The tuning on the diatonic Kalimba is similar to likembe tuning from Central African countries. The scale is laid out by alternating notes left and right from the fundamental G3 in the center. This puts thirds next to each other, so that by playing two or more notes at once, even chords are possible. The tongues are laid out in the following pattern - F♯5 - D5 - B4 - G4 - E4 - C4 - A3 - G3 - B3 - D4 - F♯4 - A4 - C5 - E5 - G5.

Example

Kalimba
Kalimba_range

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Last Updated: 2013-02-14 14:13:22