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The Hugh Tracey Karimba is a direct link to the most ancient type of metal-tined thumb piano known. The karimba (yes, with an "r") is a traditional Shona instrument which is also called the mbira nyunga nyunga. Andrew Tracey, Hugh Tracey's son, asserts that all thumb pianos of the Zambezi River Basin (the region where metal-tined thumb pianos were invented over a thousand years ago), including the mbira, are based on the note layout of the karimba.
The Hugh Tracey African Kalimba
Check out the video below, which shows me playing the composition "XX" for karimba.
The final sections of Mark Holdaway's composition for karimba, XX for Karimba. To understand the name "XX", watch the pattern which the right thumb traces out. Each of the four strokes of "XX" forms the basis of one of four chords in the progression illustrated here.
The African Karimba Tuning
Most of the notes of the karimba are not tuned to western notes, but land in between the notes found on a piano. Andrew Tracey recorded dozens of karimbas in the field, and this African tuning is a composite of the field recordings, and when placed in the hands of African players, they agree that this tuning is a good representation of the instrument they know and love.
African tuning for the Hugh Tracey karimba. The root is A, which is tuned to the western A. While most 5th intervals (i.e., A to E) are perfect 5ths, most of the karimba's notes are not tuned to western notes, but are 20 or 40 cents flat or sharp. There are 100 cents in a half step.
The Hugh Tracey kalimbas are all highly flexible and can be tuned in many different ways. If you want to play with a guitar or a piano, the African tuning will usually not work very well, but the instrument's tuning can be westernized in a variety of ways, including A major, A minor, G major, and G minor.
Books and Downloads for the Hugh Tracey African Karimba
Tips & Other Resources for the African Karimba
We had a series of 12 Tips of the Day for the Karimba back in 2006. These tips introduce the karimba tablature, the redundant notes on the upper row of tines, arpeggios, two-against-three patterns, using the right index finger, the buzzers, slides (or pull-offs), the scale on the karimba, and a couple of songs from the karimba book.
By all means, everyone who is interested in the karimba should read the interview with Andrew Tracey. Andrew learned the karimba, or mbira nyunga nyunga, from Jega Tapera in 1960. Andrew's research around 1970 led to a paper which illustrates how the notes of the mbira were derived from the karimba's note layout, a point which is shown in this interview. And finally, at the bottom of this interview, we share six traditional karimba songs which Andrew Tracey documented - but in KTabS format. These are available for free download from the interview. If you don't have KTabS (Kalimba Tablature Software), you can learn more about KTabS.
The Soul of Mbira by Paul F. Berliner is a great book to learn about the tradition of the mbira and related instruments, and how they are used in Zimbabwe in modern society. In addition to dozens of references sprinkled throughout the book, the appendix shows you how to build your own karimba, and includes tablature for six different karimba songs. Berliner's tablature is a bit rough, but in time we will transfer those tunes into KTabS.
Still Have African Karimba Questions?
If you still have questions after reading this, please send me a message to let me know what you need to find out.
Last updated Dec 2015