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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.

karimba tuning
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.

Alternative Tunings

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.

The Karimba in G minor tuning.
Learn more about Karimba Tunings.

Books and Downloads for the Hugh Tracey African Karimba

Karimba Book Playing the Hugh Tracey Karimba is a broad introduction to the layout and the possibilities of this ancient African instrument. With 42 pages, many illustrations, 45 illustrations presented in attractive and easy-to-grasp tablature, and a CD illustrating how to play each exercise, this book covers left-right integration, common rhythmic figures, and explores the harmonic potential of the karimba. Says the late John R. Raush in Percusive Notes: "Aspiring karimbists... could wish for no better way to help them become proficient on these exotic instruments."
XX for Karimba XX for Karimba, by Mark Holdaway. Marie Sato, a percussionist in Southern California, commissioned this karimba piece for a performance she was giving in the spring of 2008. We present 26 minutes of instructional video, KTabS and PDF tablature files for 15 different variations, all on a DATA CD.
10 traditional karimba pieces 10 Traditional African Pieces for the Karimba. From Andrew Tracey and Paul F. Berliner's transcriptions in the 60s and 70s, we have updated these traditional karimba tunes into modern Kalimba Magic Tablature. This download contains PDF (tablature graphics) you can display on your computer or print, KTabS files you can play on your computer, and MP3s, all lumped together in a ZIP file.
gm karimba Three orginal tunes for Gminor Karimba. The G minor tuning of the karimba is mysterious and enchanting, and is one of my personal favorites. This download includes tablature in PDF and KTabS format for three original pieces I wrote for the G minor tuned karimba - includes 11 pages of tablature and MP3s of KTabS playing the music.
Jurij Konje Jurij's Karimba Journey. I am excited to announce this collaborative effort between me and Jurij - we are offering 12 of Jurij's karimba compositions as a download. Each song comes in MUSICAL STAFF notation (JPG), Jurij's original hand-written tablature (JPG - his variations are written in an elegant way), KTabS format, KTabS produced PDF of the tablature, and an MP3 of KTabS playing. Each song has a basic part and a variation. Learn more about this download in the newsletter article.
Student Karimba Book The Student Karimba: A Doorway to Ancient Africa is a book for the lower eight (with an optional ninth) notes of the karimba, an instrument which Andrew Tracey calls the kalimba core and the original mbira. This is one of our best books, and it can be used to learn to play the lower row of notes on the full 17-note karimba or even a rustic mbira nyunga nyunga. Includes traditional tunes documented in the 1950s by Hugh Tracey, in the 1960s by Andrew Tracey, and in the 1970s by Paul F. Berliner, plus some easier pieces to help you get started, and some complex original compositions by the author.

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 Nov 2011