Kalimba: The African Thumb Piano.

For the last several weeks, the Tip of the Day has featured tips on how to get the most out of your kalimba.

The kalimba is uniquely African. People from all over the world had been building instruments like drums, or flutes, or even lutes with strings. These instruments and the ideas behind them had spread throughout the world or had been independently discovered by different peoples everywhere. However, the first Portugese explorers to visit Africa were amazed when they discovered a new amd magical musical instrument, the African thumb piano.

The kalimba has over a hundred different names. Every African language or tribe has a different name for it. Karimba, mbira, sansa are a few of the names I know. And in most of the cultures of Africa, the kalimba has a sacred role. Most typically, the kalimba is a channel of communication to and from our ancestors. Our deceased relatives speak to us through the kalimba. And it is widely believed that you cannot become a great kalimba player without the help of your ancestors.

Today, the kalimba is the personal musical instrument of choice in Africa, second in popularity only to the drum. You might see someone walking down a dusty road playing kalimba. Or you might see someone on a bus playing kalimba. And usually they sing while playing kalimba.

You may someday see me, here in Tucson Arizona, walking down the street or sitting on a bus, with a kalimba in my hand. It is a most convenient instrument - you can take it up a mountain, you can stash it in your back pack, you can even play in your car at the stop light. I take my kalimba most everywhere. For the most part, I don't play African music, but the kalimba really lends itself to African rhythms - that 6/8 feel that sloshes back and forth in an odd way is just sort of imbedded in the mechanics of the instrument. But I do give a nod to my elders who speak through the tines, without whose help I never would have become a great kalimba player.


If there is anything you'd like to know about the kalimba, please email me!

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