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A kalimba is a musical instrument that may also be called the African thumb piano. It is normally made of either a wooden platform or a slightly hollowed wooden block, about the size of an adult hand. On the top of section of the wood, metal tines are played by plucking with the thumbs. The original instrument inspiring the kalimba is the mbira, an African instrument that dates back centuries. Kalimbas came to the attention of the rest of the world when ethnomusicologist, Hugh Tracey who was known for his studies of Western and Central African music, began to create and export his own styles of the instrument after he moved to Africa in the 1920s.
The note arrangement on a kalimba is very different than the linear progression of notes found on many instruments. The lowest notes of the instrument are on the center and longest tines. Each tine on each side of the center gets shorter, producing higher notes. Though there are several different ways a kalimba can be tuned, Tracey created one based on the G scale. It can take a little getting used to playing notes that are right next to each other on the musical scale with different thumbs, but the sound produced, is well worth the effort.
Depending upon the type of style chosen, kalimbas may have light sounds, if the tines — also called lamellas — are attached to a flat piece of wood. When a hollowed piece of wood is used, it often has a central small hole located below the longest tine. Placing the thumb over the hole, or moving it in and out of the hole after a note is played can create a slight vibrato sound. Kalimbas that are hollowed do have a richer, more resonant sound, similar to a xylophone, but quieter.
You can find kalimbas in several different sizes, and they are typically made in celeste, treble and alto sizes. The celeste style has 17 tines, and is made on a flat board, producing a brighter and higher sound. Treble kalimbas use the hollowed box structure. The alto kalimba usually has 15 tines and a lower, deeper note range.
You’ll hear mbira or kalimba in plenty of African music, and also in Afro-Caribbean music. Many modern musical forms in the US also employ the instrument. The funk fusion band Earth, Wind and Fire uses the instrument extensively. Hugh Tracey kalimbas are still very popular and sell from about $100-$120 US Dollars (USD). Other manufacturers make other styles of the instrument, vary the number of notes, and change the typical rectangular shape to round or semi-circular shapes.
Hugh Tracey moved to Africa as a boy of 17 in 1920, and began studying and recording African music shortly after. In 1954 he began the International Library of African Music (ILAM) to house his collection of recordings and to make sure this work continued. The same year he filed papers which formed African Musical Instruments (AMI), the makers of the first kalimbas which were shipped around the world. The idea was that AMI would become a funding vehicle for ILAM.
Note that the Alto's low note is only two notes lower than the Treble's range, and that the Treble's top note is a 5th above the Alto's top note.