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What is a Kalimba?

A Kalimba, also known as a thumb piano, is a melodic African instrument with a wooden body and metal tines. Its enchanting tones are played by plucking the tines with thumbs, producing a resonant, harmonious sound. It's a gateway to musical creativity, accessible to beginners yet rich for advanced exploration. How might its soothing notes enhance your relaxation or creativity?
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Kalimba and where does it originate from?

The kalimba, also known as a thumb piano, is a traditional African musical instrument that belongs to the lamellophone family. It consists of a wooden board with attached staggered metal tines, which are plucked with the thumbs to produce melodious notes. The kalimba's origins can be traced back to ancient Africa, with the Shona people of Zimbabwe often credited for its early development. It has since spread in popularity across the world, celebrated for its soothing and harmonic sounds.

How do you play a Kalimba?

To play a kalimba, you hold the instrument in your hands and use your thumbs to pluck the metal tines. Each tine produces a different note when plucked, and they are typically tuned to a specific scale. By pressing and releasing the tines in various combinations and sequences, you can create melodies and harmonies. Some players also manipulate the sound by shaking the kalimba or covering and uncovering the sound holes to create vibrato effects.

What types of music can be played on a Kalimba?

A kalimba is incredibly versatile and can be used to play a wide range of music genres. From traditional African music to classical, folk, pop, and even contemporary songs, the kalimba's melodic tones suit various styles. Musicians often adapt pieces from other instruments to the kalimba, and its portability makes it a popular choice for impromptu performances and accompaniment in ensemble settings.

Can beginners easily learn to play the Kalimba?

Yes, the kalimba is known for its user-friendly design, making it accessible for beginners. Its straightforward layout allows new players to quickly grasp the basics of creating music. Many kalimbas come with note markings on the tines, which aid in learning and playing songs. Additionally, there is a wealth of instructional materials, tutorials, and songbooks available that cater to varying skill levels, further easing the learning process.

What should I consider when choosing a Kalimba?

When selecting a kalimba, consider the number of tines, which typically ranges from 5 to 17, with more tines offering a greater range of notes. The material of the tines and the quality of the wood can affect the sound quality, so look for high-quality construction. Additionally, the tuning of the kalimba is important; some are tuned to specific scales or keys. Personal preference for tone, size, and aesthetics should also guide your choice.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent MusicalExpert contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent MusicalExpert contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon969048

Why do kalimbas not have their tines placed from left to right (low to high notes)? it would be easier to play without learning a different keyboard orientation from the piano. What do you think?

KalimbaMagic

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.

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