African Metallurgy and the Birth of the Karimba

Whenever I explain to someone the kalimba's invention in Africa 3000 years ago with bamboo tines, and then its re-invention in the Zambezi Valley about 2000 years later with metal tines, almost invariably I can expect to get asked: "Metal! Where did Africans get metal before Europeans arrived?"

This attitude is surprisingly pervasive. Christian Carver blames Hollywood for the perpetuation of the idea that Europeans invented Africa. The kalimba is an excellent example of a superlative African achievement that may have nothing to do with Europeans—at least not until Hugh Tracey arrived on the scene around 1920. Christian Carver states that African metallurgy was actually highly developed during the Middle Ages, when Africans were making advanced blades, as well as mbira tines.

However, after Europeans came to Africa to colonize and exploit the continent's rich resources, in many places Europeans forbade Africans from making metal. But resourceful African mbira makers discovered they could still make acceptable mbira tines from scrap metal, such as nails removed from gates, support wires taken from telephone poles, or spokes from bike wheels.

Was African metallurgy developed independently or not?

While waiting in line to mail kalimbas at the U.S. Post Office, I met Dr. David Killick, formerly of Rhodesia, now of Tucson, Arizona—currently working at the University of Arizona. He immediately recognized the kalimba I was playing as an instrument from his earlier home. It turns out that he is also an expert on African metallurgy and has published a review of the state of our understanding of the archaeology of metallurgy in Africa.

Killick's review tells us that some researchers have proposed that iron metallurgy was developed independently in Africa over 3000 years ago, but it seems that more scholars conclude from archaeological data that iron-working was invented outside of Africa, and the technology to smelt and work iron migrated into Africa from north to south.

The interesting question to me is: How long were Africans working metal before they began to make the karimba in the Zambezi Valley? There is evidence for iron smelting and iron working starting in southern Africa in various locations between the 2nd and 6th centuries. John Roff of Pietermaritzberg, South Africa, has found Iron Age artifacts dating to 1300 years ago at the conservation lands where he works, some 600 miles to the south of the Zambezi Valley. Later estimates coincide approximately with the appearance of the first metal-tined karimbas in the Zambezi Valley. Gerhard Kubik says the first metal-tined kalimbas were made in the Zambezi Valley region about 1300 years ago.

Read David Killick's comprehensive review, "What do we know of African Iron Working?", published in the Journal of African Archaeology in 2004, which includes a number of citations for your extended research.

Dating Calibration Curve
Dating of metal-working in Africa--diagram from Killick review

How did these ancient African instruments originate?

Usually I am very loose with the words kalimba and mbira. I generally use kalimbas as generic for any non-traditional African lamellaphone, and mbira as generic for any traditional African lamellaphone OR specifically the Shona mbira da vadzimu, one specific traditional African lamellaphone, which is now played by more people than ever before in history. But I say karimba here because this "original kalimba" quite possibly was an instrument related to the modern day karimba or mbira nyunga nyunga.

The mbira player Ephat Majuru in Paul F. Berliner's book The Soul of Mbira says that the origin of the mbira is shrouded in mystery - that even though many mbira players have stories of the origins of the instrument, this is something that cannot be known. I say that the stories of the origins of the mbira tell us not of the facts of how the instrument came to be, but about how the player and their society saw their relationship to the mbira.

I favor a Shona karimba cosmology that the Gods gave metal to humans so that they could make the karimba and play music that pleases the spirits. In this story, metal was a gift for humans to make something beautiful; however, later it was diverted into useful but violent items such as blades or spears, or... guns and bombs. But it originated as something with a beautiful purpose, and that was passed down from generation to generation.


I have been purchasing mbiras from Zimbabwe lately, and they are all tuned exactly the same way - well, to within about 10 or 15 cents. But the octaves are not true, and they are keyed slightly off of Western key, all the same way. The person who makes these mbiras has a model instrument, probably the best instrument he has, and he builds and tunes each new instrument to match that model. He has made dozens, or even hundreds of mbiras from this generic blueprint. I sell in a Western market, so I have been retuning the mbiras to better match Western conceptions of musical instruments, with actual octaves and with redundant notes tuned to the same pitch.

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