Kalimba: The History Of A Magical Instrument

Most of us are familiar with the musical instruments widely used in the modern and contemporary music industry. There is a wide array of instruments, such as drums, piano, flute, guitar, and even the ukulele that many music enthusiasts prefer to learn. But aside from these, there is a simple and handy instrument that is slowly gaining popularity nowadays—the kalimba.

An African Traditional Instrument

Kalimba is a traditional African thumb piano. This instrument may look plain but there is a huge history about its discovery.

According to historians, the original name for kalimba is lamellophone. It is a combination of the Latin word “lamella” meaning “plate” and the Greek word “phone” meaning “sound.” Each tribe from Africa has a different name for kalimba. In fact, the instrument is already between 1300 to 3000 years old. It is sometimes called as mbira, sansa, and karimba but kalimba gained more popularity as the official name of the instrument.

Early Documents about Kalimba

There are early documents that tell about kalimba. Based on these notes, the kalimba was already discovered by the Portuguese explorers but remained a classic African instrument back then.

But missionary Father Dos Santos was able to document about the 9-note-iron-tined musical instrument he called “ambira.”

According to the document, the player can make a sound using their thumb nails. Dos Santos also described the sound as “sweet and gentle” and a “harmony of accordant sounds.” He also took note about the instrument’s soft sound that made it popular inside the palace of their kings.

Likewise, there are some discoveries made by archeologists that prove the age of discovery of mbira or kalimba. They found mbira tines in Africa that were made over 1000 years ago.
Some traditional versions of kalimba were also seen in European museums. However, according to some books, they were displayed but they lack on studies about their usage and origin until Gerhard Kubik made a thorough study about the kalimba in 1998.

Kalimba reached America and the World

In 1954, Hugh Tracey discovered the instrument from ancient African tribe and introduced it to the world as kalimba. The Americans were hooked about the lovely sound of it and gave it a name “thumb piano.”

Tracey first founded the International Library of African Music as the official archive of his recordings about the music of Africa.

Then, he later founded the African Musical Instruments (AMI) and made good quality kalimbas. They exported them across America, Africa, and even in Europe.

Months after, kalimba reached the world and eventually gained the attention of music enthusiasts. And in 1960’s, kalimba was launched in a musical.

Tracey’s sons, Andrew and Paul made a musical entitled Wait a Minim, and had a run for seven years. This also paved the way for black Africans to introduce their music to white people.

Kalimba To Date

Nowadays, kalimba is an official part of the modern music era. In Africa, modern artists use mbira in their performances and was played with electric guitars to create a more contemporary sound.
Also, students and young people are using the instrument as a hobby. In fact, there are a number of students that keep a kalimba inside their bag and practice using them during their free time.

Mark Holdaway PhD, “The Kalimba: A Brief History of an Ancient Instrument from Africa,” Kalimba Magic. Accessed 02 May 2020.
“Kalimba,” On Music Dictionary. Accessed 02 May 2020.

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