What is a Kalimba?
A kalimba is a musical instrument from West Africa. It typically has a wooden soundboard and metal tines. These tines are plucked and result in a mellow, chime-like sound.
The kalimba is a hand-held instrument, so it is really portable. In this article, I will be teaching you about the history of this small instrument, as well as how to play, tune, and purchase a kalimba of your own.
In some of the most frequently searched questions about the kalimba, one of them was: Is the kalimba a real instrument?
This struck me as funny.
I can show you just how real this unique piece of percussion is. Let’s get started, shall we?!
The Kalimba Instrument’s History
According to the 1998 book titled Kalimba, Nsansi, Mbira: Lamellophone in Afrika, the first thumb-piano type was created around 3,000 years ago near Cameroon in present-day W. Africa. The kalimba came from the instrument called the mbira, or zanza.
According to dictionary.onmusic, the word kalimba is Bantu for ‘little music’. According to the same music dictionary, other names you may hear the instrument called include:
- The ikembe/likembe
- The sanza/sansa
- The marimba/marimbula
The first thumb pianos/mbiras were made out of an African hardwood called kiaat, though other variations existed, such as those made from gourds, bamboo, spruce, sandalwood, and more (carvedculture). Instruments with metal keys (also called tines) didn’t come around until considerably later, because the technological developments in iron hadn’t happened yet.
What is a Kalimba? The Mbira Vs. The Kalimba
While many people consider the mbira and kalimba interchangeable nowadays, the mbira is actually a predecessor to the kalimba. The two instruments do have a lot in common, but here are some of the differences:
- The kalimba only has one row of tines, whereas the mbira has two
- Mbiras sound much buzzier
- The two instruments typically use different types of scales
- Mbiras typically have a special dish, called a Deze, that they are placed in, whereas kalimbas are simply played in your hands
Extra things such as shells are often attached to the soundboard of the mbira to give it its classic buzzing sound, whereas the kalimba has a much clearer, bell-like sound free of buzzy noises.
By Alex Weeks at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
The Deze is another really interesting element when it comes to playing the mbira. The instrument is placed inside a halved gourd, or Deze, in order to amplify the mbira’s sound.
A Special Thumb Piano: Mbira Dzavadzimu
The mbira dzavadzimu can be translated to ‘the mbira/ thumb piano of the ancestors’ and is actually associated with possession ceremonies, or bira (omeka-s.grinnell.edu). Dzavadzimu are the spirits of ancestors. The Shona believe that only these ancestors can speak to both God and living people (Bira_Ceremony). Two of these special mbira’s, along with gourd shakers, are required to make this ceremony happen.
You can watch and listen to one of these special thumb pianos here.
How the Kalimba Works
The metal tongues on the instrument are plucked. These tongues, or tines, vibrate according to their length, thus producing a full scale when tuned correctly.
The kalimba instrument is classified as a lamellophone and a plucked idiophone.
According to the Webster dictionary, lamellohphones are:
“Any of a class of musical instruments (such as the mbira, Jew’s harp, or music box) whose sound is generated by plucking flexible tuned tongues of metal, wood, cane, or other material attached at one end to a small board or resonator and plucked with the thumbs or fingers or activated mechanically.”
And, according to the Webster dictionary, an idiophone is:
“Any of a class of musical instruments (such as a bell or gong) whose sound is generated by striking, rubbing, plucking, or blowing the material of the instrument itself not under any special tension”
How to Play Kalimba
To play the kalimba, gently cup the instrument in your hands. Now, rest one thumb on top of each instrument. Use your thumbs to pluck the tines!
I have noticed that some players prefer to pluck the tines with the pads of their fingers, whereas others prefer to grow out their nails and use them. Just be sure to choose the option that is most comfortable for you!
While it is difficult to tell you how to play the instrument with just words, you can also check out this video for the basics of playing with KalimbaCam! (This video also covers tuning, so if you aren’t ready for that, skip to 3:00).
Because of how the instrument is set up, kalimba notation looks unique. The lowest note of the instrument is actually in the center, rather than furthest to the left (like the regular piano). If you plan on getting serious about the kalimba, take the time to learn how to read notation. This page will help you out!
Buying Your First Kalimba
Before you buy your first kalimba, be sure to decide the following:
- How many tines you want
- Whether you will need wide-spaced or narrow-spaced tines
- What kind of material/sound you want
Number of Tines
The number of tines is extremely important, as it determines how large the instrument is, as well as how many notes it can play! Here are the most common sets of tines:
If you are just getting started, I recommend you begin with a smaller, cheaper model and work your way up. This instrument is a pretty economical one, so moving up gradually won’t break the bank.
Be sure to take a look at the width of your thumbs and the size of your hands before you pick out your instrument. People with larger thumbs and hands may need a kalimba with tines that are spaced further apart than someone with small, thin hands and fingers.
Types of Kalimbas
There are three common kalimba models: treble, celeste, and alto.
The treble kalimba, or the Hugh Tracey kalimba, was the first model to really get popular (in the 1960’s). This model typically has 17 tines and is in G.
The celeste kalimba is different from the treble kalimba because it is mounted to a board. If you are looking for an instrument with better-sounding high notes, consider this type of instrument.
The alto kalimba is another classic by Hugh Tracey. It sounds lower, and traditionally has 15 notes.
If you are interested in buying a high-end kalimba, the Tracey ones are a great place to start (albeit, they are a bit expensive). You can check them out here.
If you just want something non-commital to doodle on, try this one for $10.
Fun fact: There is also such a thing as an electric kalimba! Check out the instrument and effects in the teaser video here.
Before you purchase your first kalimba, it’s a good idea to decide what kind of material you’d like yours to be made out of. Like other instruments, each kalimba’s material will affect its tone color, and overall sound. Here are some of the most common materials you will see for the base/ soundboard:
Glass kalimbas are very popular on Tiktok, and have a mellow sound. Wood kalimbas (obviously) sound more ‘woody’, and are more similar in timbre to the original iterations of the thumb piano (mbiras).
Kalimba tines are all made out of metal. Spring steel tines are ideal, but stainless steel and ore steel will also do, especially if you are just getting started.
Soundboard vs Board: You Get What You Pay For
You can find a lot of cute kalimbas on a solid wood board for $20 or less- But the sound won’t be nearly as resonant as if you get a model like the Hugh Tracey model, which has a sound board for the vibrations to resonate in.
Kalimba Maintenance: Tuning
You might be wondering how such a tiny instrument could possibly need maintenance. Well, I hate to break it to you, but the thumb piano needs tuning! But don’t worry, it’s not nearly as time-consuming (or expensive) as tuning your baby grand.
Kalimbas go out of tune when the weather changes, or when the tines get misaligned, which changes their pitch.
In order to tune a kalimba, you will need a small tuning hammer. You may not have gotten a tuning hammer with your kalimba, so be sure to get one of these if you don’t have one yet.
To tune a kalimba key, use a chromatic tuner, and gently tap the key until it is in tune. The metal tines of the instrument are pretty fragile and easily bent, so be careful!
You may also want to tune your kalimba to a new key or mode, so knowing how to do this is pretty important!
Nope, you’re not conditioning your hair here! If you have a kalimba with a wood base, be sure to invest in a specialty oil or shea butter to help protect the wood and prevent it from drying out and cracking.
Best Kalimba Covers
In case you didn’t already know, the kalimba has taken both Youtube and Tiktok by storm. It’s just so relaxing! Here are some of my personal favorites when it comes to kalimba covers:
When did the Kalimba Become Popular?
For a very long time, the instruments of West Africa were virtually unknown to the Western world. That is, until English ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey came around, and introduced an instrument he had recorded from the Shona people. Tracey and his wife took thousands of recordings of the music of the Shona people. He was the first to popularize the mbira
(mbira nyunga nyunga) , which he decided to call the kalimba.
Why Play the Kalimba?
Some people might think the kalimba is a silly little instrument, but in reality, it is a melodic piece of percussion with a rich history. Here are some reasons why you should consider taking up the kalimba:
- It is a good introduction to reading sheet music
- Tiktokkers love it!
- It makes a lovely gift for anyone of any age
- The instrument is super portable
- It can be tuned to unique scales
Whether you want to go viral on Tiktok or want to learn sheet music, this quaint hand-held instrument may be your new best trick to keep up your sleeve (or rather, in your pocket!). If you don’t know what to buy for your niece or nephew, or your best friend, a Lil kalimba is a good solution! Not to mention, it’s super portable, so you can make music anywhere.
Lastly, the kalimba can be tuned to unique world scales, so you won’t be stuck with C major all the time. Some alternate tunings that the site Kalimba Magic suggests include minor pentatonic, a blues scale, and Middle-Eastern tuning. You can see how the instruments are tuned this way on their page here.
What is a Kalimba: Conclusion
Thanks for stopping by and learning about a new (very old!) instrument with me. I hope by now, you know the answer to the question: What is a kalimba?!
And, if you like the new curiosities blog, be sure to come back for more soon! (And leave some comments if you have any unusual music topics you want us to cover!