Thursday, August 16, 2012

What is a Kalimba?

kalimba
In case you were curious, the kalimba is a musical instrument that originated in Africa. Shown above is an alto kalimba, with 15 tuned steel bars that are played by the thumbs. This particular model is a Hugh Tracey kalimba, made with resonant mubvamarope wood and also has a hole in the center to allow extra resonance and modulation of the sound with the thumbs.

back of kalimba
Here is the back of the kalimba, showing two small resonance holes and the metal Hugh Tracey brand plate. Overall, the instrument measures 8-1/2"L x 6"W x 1-5/8"D. I think the kalimba's sound can be most easily related to the xylophone, although it is softer and less bright. You can cover and uncover the holes to create a sort of vibrato, but my kalimba is quite soft and I didn't find that this feature worked especially well.

hugh tracey kalimba side
The same instrument from a different angle, showing the mechanism that supports the metal tone bars. They are held in place by spring tension, and can be adjusted for tune or even tuned into a different key by moving them forward and backward over the soundboard. It also shows how the bars rest directly on the sound board, causing it to resonate.

kalimba fingering chart

The layout of the kalimba is designed for harmony - neighboring keys always form a third. Above is an image of my alto kalimba and a fingering or key chart in place under the keys. To play a scale on a kalimba that has been tuned to a major key, simply play alternate ascending and descending keys with both thumbs.

If your kalimba makes a buzzing sound on certain keys, it is typically caused by debris or dirt at the metal-on-metal contact points between the steel keys and the clamping mechanism or front rest. Sometimes you can cure a buzzing key by wiggling it from side to side or blowing at the contact point while playing it. Alternatively, you can wedge a scrap of paper under the key after pressing down on it near the bar and the paper will eliminate the buzzing. (You'll just tear off the paper and leave it in place as a washer.)

And for the grand finale, here's a video of a few kalimba chords being played by yours truly. The visuals are pretty bad thanks to Blogger's video processing, but the audio quality is still ok. Enjoy!

video

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