Kalimba: The Ultimate Guide

Posted: 2019-12-28     Last Update: 2020-08-26

kalimba guide poster

Kalimba, also known as mbira, karimba, calimba, is a traditional African instrument with aging over 3000 years. It has gained tremendous popularities in western and eastern countries nowadays. The sweet and soothing sound hunts for peoples’ love. What’s more, kalimba is so easy to learn. Thus, everyone can play by themselves to pursuit inner peace. Or play with friends to share joys. 

Though increasing reputation all around the world, valued information, on the contrary, is unbelievable dry to fish. Neither basic introduction nor deep dive reviews are easy to find in one stop page. Given more time searching around, this has significantly raised the bar to learn such an interesting instrument.

It is where this ultimate guide comes from. In the guidebook, anyone who has interest in kalimba and begins to learn this instrument, can find everything quickly and easily. This post covers what is a kalimba, mbira and kalimba, kalimba sound, kalimba origin, selection tips, tuning kalimba, instructions of reading tabs, playing kalimba and caring kalimba. Reader can checkout from start to the end or pick any particular session for reading pleasure.

What is a mbira


Mbira is a traditional thumb piano played in the Africa thousands of years ago. It deeply roots in religious ceremonies. The typical mbira is made of solid board with attached metal tines laying in two rows. There are some variants while we just focus on two widely-known ones.

MBIRA Dzavadzimu

mbira dzavadzimu

Mbira Dzavadzimu, meaning “voice of the ancestors”, is the national instrument of Zimbabwe. Shona people used to play this traditional instrument to attract the spirits of their ancestors for the good wishes during religious ceremonies and social events called mabira(sing. “bira”) for thousands of years.

There are usually 22 to 28 keys attached to an end of the wood board (gwariva) with three registers, two on the left and one on the right. A hole lies on the bottom right. Some Mbira Dzavadzimu are fixed in a deze (a halved calabash gourd) which aids for the sound amplification during public performances. Bottle caps, shells or other objects (“machachara”) are also utilized in pursuit of a buzzing sound.

To play the instrument, for the right hand, people places the little finger through the hole, leaving the ring finger and middle finger holding back of the body to keep mbira stable. The thumb(above) and index finger(below) pluck the keys on the right. When it comes to left hand, all the fingers will reach behind the instrument except the thumb which will flick the two registers on the left.

Within the Shona tradition, the mbira may be played with paired performers in which the kushaura, the caller, leads the performed piece as the kutsinhira, the responder, “interlocks” a subsequent part. The variations of notes in a mbira piece aid the participants in going into trance, which in Shona culture aids the spirits in taking over the participant’s body. In this way, people are able to figure out if their ancestors approve their behavior. It largely determines the success and happiness of their lives as believed.

MBIRA Nyunga Nyunga

mbira nyunga

Mbira Nyunga Nyunga, standing for “sparkly sparkly mbira”, is a 15 key mbira originated from Manicaland where it traditionally plays the entertainment role during social gatherings and commemorations.

Jeke Tapera introduces Mbira Nyunga Nyunga in the 1960s from Tete province of Mozambique to Kwanongoma College of African Music (now United College of Music) when 13 keys were added into 15 keys. Almost the same time, Dumisani Maraire takes this to USA and comes across ones who are familiar with Mbira Dzavadzimu. To tell apart, he named this as Mbira Nyunga Nyunga with the features of fun rather than holly and religious purpose.

It largely remains the similar construction as Mbira Dzavadzimu while the bottom right hole does not exist. There are two rows laying on one end with seven upper keys and eight bottom keys. Key pitch radiates out from the center, instead of from left to right.

What is a kalimba


Kalimba, also known as karimba, is a preferred name among people living in north part of Zimbabwe nowadays. Karimba, on the other hand, has higher popularities for people in the rest of the country. Though traditional as it is, the name of kalimba possesses a greater recognition among western countries due to the efforts by Hugh Tracy. In resonant box with one row tines, Hugh Tracy employed a key layout as of likembe which has significantly made it easy to play. For this arrangement, the lowest note stays in the center leaving the higher notes in alternating way on both sides. That is to say, the notes go up in the order of right-left-right-left progression. Given this layout, plucking the adjacent tines easily makes the chords. If a lower octave is desired, the same notes can be played on the opposite side of the tines.

Furthermore, people can retune the instrument into an entirely new one based on their needs.

Deeply adapting into western music, kalimba has evolved itself as an instrument with more connections to the modern world.

Kalimba VS Mbira

kalimba vs mbira

Lots of people get confused when talking about kalimba and mbira. Both names have been used interchangeably in most of the contexts to present an African instrument with soundboard and several tines acting. Yet slight differences still remain if we take a step further.

Firstly, it is the layout of the tines. The kalimba has typically one row plus 8 or more keys attached. For mbira, on the other hand, there are two rows with 15-28 keys affixed on one end.

Secondly, the scales of notes make the major difference. Kalimba follows the seven-note diatonic scale which is the tradition of western music. However, the non-western scale of the mbira features the same notes but not in the same order. Some notes may even be missing. Given a feature like this, kalimba has turned out modern with larger accessibility to various genres of music. Mbira remains more traditional.

Thirdly, the percussive element also differs. Kalimba can easily produce a distinctive buzzing effect, “Wah-Wah Sound”, by covering and uncovering the hole(s) of resonant-box style. It becomes difficult to create the same effect as mbira is normally in solid board.

How kalimba looks like


kalimba instrument

lamellophone (also known as lamellaphone or linguaphone, from the Latin root lingua meaning “tongue”, i.e., a long thin plate that is fixed only at one end) is any of a family of musical instruments. The name comes from the Latin word lamella for “small metal plate”, and the Greek word φωνή phonē for “sound, voice”. A bulks of plates or tines, or “tongues” as aforementioned, are fixed on one end and left the other end free. The players can pluck the tines in free ends with their finger or thumb nails.

As the African lamellophone, the general physical property remains the same. For the body, the modern Kalimba has the resonant box or flat board which consists of various woods. Acrylic also comes into existence in recent years for diversified styles and different acoustic experience.

When it comes to the “tongue”, modern kalimba largely evolves from Likembe’s note layout by alternating the notes left and right. The tines or keys, usually attached on the top, come from spring steel. Spring wire, bicycle spokes or even old spoon handles can be found as well when it comes to homemade kalimbas. There are 8 to 24 keys or even more mounted between upper and lower bars on one end of the body and leaving the rest half as holding part. The upper bar usually holds the key while the lower bar acts as a bridge for plucking. Each key is positioned in different lengths aiming at producing bulks of pitches. A longer key produces a lower pitch yet a higher pitch comes from a shorter key. 

Resonant Box or Flat Board

falt board and resonant box

Resonant box and flat board are typical two types of kalimbas. The critical difference comes from the existence of the sound holes. According to the records available, traditional kalimba is in flat board, lacking of sound holes, in the old days. Then people develops a hollowed gourd to amplify the sound. Resonant box are largely coming from this way. Thus, you can always find a sound hole on the front and two smaller ones on the back. It is always empty within box for amplification purpose. Given the holes, more playing skills apply. For instance, by covering and uncovering the sound hole can create wah-wah sounds.

Kalimba sound


How kalimba produces sound

kalimba sound

Now let’s see how kalimba produces the sound. The tines from the fixed end to free end behaves as a sort of cantilever beam. It produces a longitudinal sound wave when plucked by finger. Then the sound wave travels and bounces off the wood board. There comes the sound. This is the reason why kalimba sits as a member in idiophone family. The longer tine means a less frequent vibration which leads to a lower note. Yet the shorter tine creates the adverse result.

Sound property

We can always hear a soothing, haunting sound by kalimba. It conveys a sense of peace and fascination. Unlike stringed instruments or air-column instruments, e.g. flutes, the overtones of a plucked lamella are inharmonic, giving the mbira a characteristic sound. The inharmonic overtones are strongest in the attack and die out rather quickly, leaving an almost pure tone. When a tine is plucked, the adjacent tines also create secondary vibrations that increase the harmonic complexity of an individual note.

Due to the sound holes on the resonant box, kalimbas adopts a buzzing effect, wah-wah sound. The sound acts importantly for many tribal cultures in Africa. Even metal bottle caps or snail shells are attached to enhance the sound. It is said that the buzzing sound is to clear the mind and to stay focused on the music for the listeners. People can hardly found the same in western music. What’s more, players have introduced more effects and skills with the evolvement of kalimba.

Origin of kalimba


kalimba origin

Acient times

About 3000 years ago, around nowadays Cameroon, the west coast of Africa, there appeares the first kalimba-like instrument made up of wood as board and bamboo as tines. Later around 1300 years ago, in the light of acquiring skill of iron process, kalimba turns into metal tines in the Zambezi River Valley, southeastern of Africa. This is where kalimba starts the journey across the continent and gains popularity to the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Evolved into different forms and usages, the mbira highly integrates itself into the local culture. It is easy to find kalimba in religious events connecting to the ancestors, celebrating wedding and performing to the kings.

Modern times

According to the record, the mbira is not discovered until 1586 by a Portuguese explorer and missionary Father Dos Santos. He is the first European to keep a record of 9 notes instrument named as Ambira during his traveling in Mozambique.

On the ground of the colonization in Africa in the late 19th century, Africa’s people move to cities for living. They are taught western music which results in a less access to their traditional music and culture. It is regarded as a tremendous lose by an English ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey. With the support from Robert Sibson who founds the Kwanongoma College of African Music (now United College of Music), Hugh Tracy is hired as a consultant to preserve and continue the traditional African culture and music.  During his 50 years in southern Africa to explore, document and record, Hugh Tracy redesigns mbira to present kalimba. He chooses the name of kalimba among lots of other names and brings it to the western world commercially in 1950s.

Contemporary time

In 1968, Dumisani Maraire, who studies karimba and marimba at Kwanongoma, takes his music to Seattle, USA and teaches people to play songs on karimbas and marimbas. In the early 1970s, Maurice White of the band Earth Wind and Fire composes the songs about the African heritage taught by kalimba. During 1980s, Thomas Mapfumo introduces kalimba on stage accompanying with modern rock instruments. This has helped kalimba to grow in the western world even faster.

Choose right kalimba


To purchase a right kalimba, we need to consider three key factors.

best wood kalimba

Material

The material ranks the first. It impacts kalimba on both style and sounds. Wood and acrylic are most widely recognized. For wood, there are several well known sorts, including mahogany, acacia, black walnut, pine. Different woods have various styles and produce sounds in unique ways. Some woods may even request special cares in certain climates. For example, acacia is afraid of somewhere day. Acrylic kalimba has a more adorable style while the sound is slightly lighter.

Patterns

The patterns largely determines where and how you want to play the instrument. If you expect to play as performance, electric pattern is advised given the plugged-in sound pick up which you can connect to any louder speaker immediately. In an other way, you wish to play alone or with a small group of people, you can consider either resonant box or flat board. Resonant box kalimba has a louder sound due to amplified effect. More playing skills are also available, e.g. buzzing effect or “Wah-Wah Sound”. The flat board, on the contrary, is more connected to original mbira and has more pure notes, bringing inner peace and fulfillment during play.

Number of Keys

The number of note matters concerning player’s level and age. Offering a 21Key kalimba to an 8-year-old kid who does not have any music background makes a mess. This is not only too big but also too complicated for the player. So, the key number less than 10 is an ideal option for kids who show interest to music and like to explore with kalimba. 15-17 Keys are good for adults in novice or intermediate level. If the player acquires equivalent experience or more as advanced level, 17 plus keys are advised.

Choosing the one that suits the player is more important than the one alleged best.

Tune kalimba


kalimba tuning

There are always a number and a letter on one end of a tine which means the sound to be produced during play. Color works for easier navigation among lots of tines.

When tuning a kalimba, you can follow a quick tutorial in 6 steps. The principle is tapping upward as of flat and downward as of sharp.

To explore a step further and pursuit something different, player can try various key charts.

When the tines on both ends produce sound in a less perfect way, or sound blunt sometimes, trying either physical move or non-physical skill makes the sound better.

Learn to read tabs


Understanding how to read tabs enables you to play a song that you like. There are normally two types, Kalimba Tab (Ktabs) and Number Based.

ktabs overview

Ktabs

Kalimba Tab (KTab) is a tablature specifically designed for kalimba players. One can easily find the right key to play and how long it lasts by reading the tab. Every element you know about staff notation applys here. Starting from bottom to top, from left to right, it is extremely easy to learn how to read KTab. Further skills have also respective demonstrations in KTab. That ensures to explore the most of kalimba if KTab is appropriately mastered.

Number based

Number based tab is the other sort some players use. It is a system based on Pierre Galin system with Arabic numerals from 1 to 7 which represent the seven scale degrees in a diatonic major scale. Everyone can play the music  by plucking the number engraved tine which has the same number in the tab.

Play kalimba


mbira dzavadzimu

In order to enjoy the most of kalimba, you need to hold it in an appropriate way. Place both thumbs on the front, leaving the rest fingers wrapping to the back. The core principle is to be as comfortable as you like and ensure the flexibility of plucking and covering the holes. With that in mind, you may also explore by yourself.

If some noise comes during play, you can either choose reposition of the issued tines or insert a piece of paper to fix the issue. 

It is easy to learn Kalimba. However, you may also quickly get bored if play with single note only. Thus, three skills are employed to start a more pleasant journey.

Firstly, it is double-stop which means two or more keys are plucked simultaneously to acquire a chord. It can be played either on one side or two side of the instrument.

Secondly, it goes to glissando which means playing the adjacent keys and creating a greater sensation where a single note cannot show. The glide usually begins with lower note to high ones. Due to the renovating layout of modern kalimba, the chord can be effortlessly played because notes that make a chord usually sit together.

Finally, buzzing sound, also known as Wah-Wah sound, is a featured sound that only kalimba owns. This sound is produced when covering and uncovering the front hole or back holes after plucking a certain key. Those middle note keys are the best ones to make the effect.

With adequate practices, you are surely on a way to a gorgeous world of kalimba.

Take care of kalimba


By now, kalimba is a friend of yours. Knowing how to take care of it helps you to keep a longer trip than expected with this instrument.

care kalimba

The climate has a great impact on the maintenance. Neither too dry nor too humid is doing great favor for kalimba. Thus, appropriate actions to keep it in an adequate environment matters. It could be the care case or a flannelette bag to keep it dry in case of any humid circumstances, or humidifier and oils to where is dry. Chemical suppliers are prohibited to prevent from any erode of the material.

Unless the sound is less perfect given rusty tines, you can keep them there. Otherwise, you could try physical ways to clean the rust or replace them with a new set. 

Conclusion


The instrument is constantly evolving. Consequently, this tutorial oughts to keep up the pace. That is to say, we welcome any valued information and tricks that makes the community even better. What are you waiting for? Start your kalimba journey and join in as a member.