Most people know a kalimba when they hear one, although they may not know the instrument by name. Kalimbas have a distinctive, ethereal tone; it's what I imagine water running over smooth stones would sound like, if you could somehow train water to play melodies. If you are struggling with a mental picture, try the phrase "thumb piano," which is a fairly common term used to describe this little tuned percussion instrument.
Christian Carver is the director of African Musical Instruments (A.M.I.), the company that makes the Hugh Tracey kalimba. Carver says, "The word [kalimba] is from the Shona people of Zimbabwe. In many Bantu languages, the suffix mba is the word for 'note,' thus we have words such as marimba, which means 'many notes,' and kalimba, which means, loosely, 'little note.'"
The kalimba is related to the African mbira, one of the oldest instruments in the world. It's hard to overstate the significance of the mbira in the lives of many Africans. In one Shona legend, ancient spirits gave the mbira to humankind so that we could play the music the spirits want to hear, and, indeed, mbira are played to this day in many religious ceremonies in Africa, as well as for entertainment.
Noted ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey became enamored of the mbira in the 1920s while farming in Zimbabwe. In the 1930s, he introduced the mbira to the rest of the world as part of his effort to validate and popularize African music. He eventually introduced his own design, the Hugh Tracey Kalimba, in the 1950s. Sales of his kalimba originally founded the International Library of African Music, which, among other things, is notable for being the only archive for recordings of traditional South African music.
Despite Tracey's efforts, the word "kalimba" didn't exactly become a household world, although it is familiar enough for many people to use it as a generic term for any thumb piano. You can find endless variations on (and imitations of) his kalimba in gift shops and import and music stores, occasionally alongside mbira.
Kalimbas generally have a sound box that is held in two hands and that resonates when one or more of an assortment of metal tines, or keys, are struck with the tip of the thumbs or thumbnails. The keys are suspended over a bridge, which leaves the longer, playing end suspended over the top or soundboard. Kalimbas are usually fairly small - Hugh Tracey kalimbas are slightly larger than a paperback book.
The traditional mbira is played while inserted into a large, hollowed-out gourd for amplification, although a player might choose not to use a gourd resonator if he were only practicing. Mbira have multiple rows of keys, and tuning arrangements and scales can vary quite a bit. They usually have small bands of wire or, sometimes, metal strips cut from soda cans, wrapped around the non-playing end of the tines, or shells, or bottle caps attached to the resonating chambers, for a rhythmic buzzing sound. Mbira decoration varies wildly - carving, paint, and beads may distinguish an mbira, depending on the builder.
I have been playing kalimba since the early 1970s. Back then, I was a drummer in search of my own means of melodic expression, and I'd already picked up the mountain dulcimer. When I saw Taj Mahal and Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire playing kalimbas, I decided I needed to have one.
Hugh Traceys are my instrument of choice. They are all well constructed, built with beautiful and resonant Kiaat wood, and they have a very clear, musical tone with nice sustain, especially in the lower registers. They have two small soundholes on the back and a larger one on the front, with which you can create a lovely vibrato effect by using gentle finger movements. There are several models available. All Hugh Tracey kalimbas come pre-tuned to the diatonic G Major scale, although they can be tuned to any key. (This isn't something you can do onstage in between songs, though. Moving the keys back and forth precisely is challenging and takes real concentration. If you want to play in a variety of keys, take my advice: get several kalimbas, tune each one the way you want it - once - and be done with it!)
I first played kalimba with my two friends, Richard Matthew and Bill Birney, in a group called the Earthlings. We were essentially an acoustic group, but it wasn't too long before I decided to amplify my kalimba, so I began using a Barcus Berry mandolin pickup, stuck on the soundboard with that goop they used to sell specifically for that purpose. (The pickup is still stuck on there, to this day. I think that goop has fossilized!)
At any rate, I used to run the signal from my kalimba through a little Boss graphic equalizer stomp box, because the piezo-electric element in the Barcus Berry tended to emphasize the percussive "clink" part of the kalimba sound. With judicious use of EQ, I could pull down the offending frequencies and mellow things out. From the EQ, I ran the signal into a Roland JC120 Jazz Chorus amp.
If you're any good with a soldering iron, you can make pickups for a kalimba very inexpensively. I made some using piezo elements that you can buy at Radio Shack. These elements are meant for door buzzers, but they're very similar to what's in a Barcus Berry and they only cost about five bucks apiece. I found instructions on how to build this kind of pickup in an ancient issue of Frets magazine. My copy of that magazine is long gone, but if you want to build your own pickups, an Internet search will probably give you all the info you need on the subject.
Eventually I was fronting a full band and playing leads on my amplified kalimba, so I began experimenting with effect pedals, much to the amusement of my electric guitar-playing pals. This was tricky. A fuzz kalimba can sound fantastic - strange and wonderful - for a second or two. But your pickup can be sensitive, and, in addition to amplifying the kalimba, it might also capture the sound coming out of your amp, or the crack of a drummer's snare, or anything, really. Then your interesting sound can suddenly explode (along with your eardrums) in high-pitched, screaming feedback!
In general, very subtle effects, like a mild touch of chorus or a bit of digital delay, can complement the sound of a kalimba. Just don't stand too close to your amp. (I still occasionally freak out with weird effects in my studio. It's easier to do the crazy stuff with recording software than it is in live performance.)
If you'd like to hear what can be done with a couple of kalimbas and a little imagination, check out the Earthlings MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/earthlingsaz.
Judging from the many enthusiastic comments about the Earthlings page, lots of people out there either have kalimbas or have always wanted to play them. If playing the kalimba sounds like fun to you, I hope this article will inspire you to get started. I'm starting a new kalimba-oriented group, by the way, and I'd like to hear from anyone who might be interested. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, here are some other cool links to check out:
http://www.kalimba.co.za/ (A.M.I. - makers of the Hugh Tracey Kalimba and other neat instruments.)
http://www.kalimbamagic.com/ (A great wealth of kalimba information is available here, and you can order Hugh Tracey Kalimbas on this site.)
http://www.cdbaby.com/andyrobinson (Listen to the sound clips of "Penguin," "Nameless Parade," and "Let There Be Night," from my 2004 solo CD, Exotic America. You can listen to the rest of the clips, too, but those songs have kalimba!)
http://www.ekalimba.com/ (Wild and innovative electronic kalimbas, by David Bellinger.)
http://www.ilam.ru.ac.za/ (International Library of African Music)
http://www.crammed.be/craworld/crw27/e/index.htm (This group is amazing. You'll either love them or they'll drive you insane!)
Recommended reading: The Soul of Mbira, Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe by Paul F. Berliner (a fantastic, scholarly book about mbira and mbira players in Africa.)