Kalimba Magic offers five different makes of kalimba: the Hugh Tracey, the Hokema, the "2B", the Catania, and the Goshen. Below we give you some background on each of these.
The Hugh Tracey kalimbas were the first kalimbas to be exported from Africa in the late 1950s. Hugh Tracey was a life-long lover of African music, and he devoted tens of thousands of hours to recording and documenting traditional African music south of the Saharan Desert and all the way to South Africa.
Tracey started African MusicalInstruments (AMI) in 1955 to help fund his non-profit organization, International Library of African Music (ILAM). He made over 100 prototype kalimbas before he settled on designs for the Treble, Alto, and Celeste Treble kalimbas. These are the kalimbas that started the world-wide kalimba craze of the 1960s and 1970s, and these are the kalimbas that competitors all around the world have imitated.
The box-mounted kalimbas have a sound hole in the front and two smaller sound-holes in the back. The placement of these holes was adjusted by Hugh Tracey, but this was a long-standing feature of traditional African instruments. You can achieve a "wah wah" effect by covering and uncovering these holes while playing. I refer to this electronic-sounding effect as "thousand-year-old African technology".
These kalimbas are still made in South Africa today from African kiaat, the resonant hardwood which was used traditionally for the Shona mbira. While the basic design of the kalimbas has changed very little since Hugh Tracey sent his trio of kalimbas to the patent office, AMI continues to design new kalimba instruments and continues to add advances such as an optional electronic pickup.
Most of the instructional materials Kalimba Magic has produced are designed for the Hugh Tracey Kalimbas, and almost every Hugh Tracey Kalimba has a Kalimba Magic instructional book.
The Hokema kalimbas are physically delightful to play - the tines are soft and the tones are magical. Made in Germany by Peter Hokema, these kalimbas look and feel like German engineers did everything right. I would recommend any of these kalimbas to beginners because they all make really beautiful music without much understanding or investment in time and effort. The flip side is that these instruments are generally not capable of playing very many different songs.
The sansula is the invention that got Hokema making kalimbas. It has a little kalimba mounted on a frame drum. The kalimba is based on the traditional African karimba, but is tuned to the Japanese Ake Bono scale (in A minor). Don't beat on the frame drum - you will break it. Rather, play a note and then lift the frame drum up and put it back down on a flat surface to hear the "wah wah" sound. Beautiful and unique.
The "2B" kalimbas are perhaps the most mysterious and mystical kalimbas I have seen. Fifteen years ago, Thomas Bothe spent about a year travelled around the far east, and when he returned to Germany, he was a changed man. He started to make musical instruments, and the instruments that people loved the most were his kalimbas. Now (2010) he is better than ever. His kalimbas are charming and wonderful. Tiny meditation companions. A pure delight. Clever and well made with an innovative design.
At this time, we only carry the 2B/9-Note and the 2B/14-Note kalimbas. Each instrument is tuned to its own special tuning. As an artist, Thomas won't make the same kalimba twice. I asked for standardized kalimba models to sell at Kalimba Magic, and they are very similar, but the artist in Thomas must make each a unique creation - he accomplishes this by making the tuning different on each kalimba. And every tuning is at least very good - some are great. I realized that my mission, as far as the 2B kalimbas are concerned, is to document each tuning. The wing nuts make retuning very easy, and you can try all of the tunings that Thomas has made: the 2B/9 tunings are here and the 2B/14 tunings are here. We will retune to any tuning you want.
The 2B/9-Note and 2B/14-Note kalimbas are really tiny, and yet they are able to play notes lower than even the Hugh Tracey Alto's low notes. If you mount the 2B kalimba onto its resonant frame (made of wood with a thin goat skin stretched over it), the low notes sound great - hence the tiny 2B's can actualy play notes lower than you would expect based on their size. While the resonator frame is sold separately, the magnetic holders do come with the 2B kalimba, so you can mount them on any frame drum, or a small cardboard box, or a plastic leftovers container, or a small balsa wood craft box - the possibilities are endless.
Finely crafted but pricy, the 2B kalimbas make fine gifts. But most people purchase them for themselves. Here are some quotes from the happy customers who have purchased these kalimbas:
"The little 2B 9 note was waiting for me when I got home today. What a sweet, heavenly, joyous sounding instrument!"
"Hello Mark...received the 2b today. Your right the little darling plays by it self. This pearl puts me in heaven and I'm still on earth. What a felling."
- Creighton, 2010
The Catania kalimbas are one of the best values around. They come in 8 and 12-Note varieties, both board-mounted and gourd-mounted. The gourd-mounted kalimbas have a sound-hole in the front and two small sound-holes on the sides. Note that I only carry gourd pianos with circular holes on the front - this is a quality choice on my part, as the circular hole results in a better "wah" effect. The workmanship is flawless on both board and gourd mounted kalimbas, and the wood is usually quite beautiful.
I recommend the Catania kalimbas to anyone who isn't sure if they want to get into the kalimba or not. The prices won't break your bank, but the quality is pretty high. I know several adults and even more children who started out on the Catania 8-note kalimbas and then went on to the Catania 12-Note or the Hugh Tracey kalimbas. I still perform some songs on the 8-Note Catania kalimbas.
The 8-Note kalimbas are great for kid's programs. In fact, the Catania kalimbas are probably the most rugged kalimbas I've got. They can be dropped on the floor and they usually won't go out of tune. They can be thrown at a wall and with about a minutes worth of attention, are usually good to go for round 2. While I don't recommend dropping or throwing kalimbas of any kind, these sorts of abuse will eventually happen if you work with kids long enough, and the Catanias will stand up to that abuse.
The Goshen Kalimbas are another of the great American Kalimbas. They offer beautiful high quality wood work, a good kalimba sound, and they are not that expensive. In addition, there are some fairly exotic models - the double bridge Goshen kalimba and the Mate kalimba for two people to play.
The Goshen does come with a caveat - the tines are very small and the attachment mechanism is not that strong. While the Goshens stand up fine to normal playing and normal stresses, they must be babied a bit. If children play roughly with the Goshen kalimbas, the tines can be pulled out of place or even straight off the instrument. If you pack a Goshen in your backpack, be careful that the tines do not get caught when you remove the kalimba. So, while they are really fine insruments, beautiful and good sounding, you just need to be careful with them, and you will certainly have a fine kalimba experience.