Jan. 17, 2011
Vol. 6, Num. 1
Kalimba Magic NEWS
Aaron Chavez is one of the world's best chromatic kalimba players. He recently got a degree from Cal Arts in world percussion, where they let him create his own program in kalimba. He taught himself to play chromatic kalimba, and adapted several classical pieces to the instrument. Now he is looking to create a larger version of the chromatic kalimba that can compete with the marimba in terms of repertoire and functionality - only you'll be able to hold it in your hands.
Aaron Chavez: I was really drawn to the chromatic kalimba because I came from a background of playing percussion instruments with mallets, and I was trying to find an instrument that wasn't so huge and hard to haul around and expensive. I thought of a chromatic kalimba before I even knew Kalimba Magic had them for sale. I went to Cal Arts looking for someone who could make one. Then I had a friend who went to PASIC (Percussive Arts Society International Conference) and came back and told me that you had these chromatic kalimbas already. I bought one immediately and starting practicing even though I didn't know anything about it. It seemed pretty easy to me to look at the front of it and see all the white notes on the piano, and look at the back and see all the flats and sharps.
Kalimba Magic: There is a theory that the first kalimbas were made as portable xylophones! With the Hugh Tracey chromatic kalimba, you got yourself a portable vibraphone.
AC: I've seen a lot of percussionists graduate who don't even own an instrument. They have to come back to school and ask and plead their teachers to check out an instrument for a gig. But if they got into this instrument, they wouldn't have to worry about that anymore - they could purchase one immediately. It's under a couple hundred bucks, and you can learn pretty much any kind of repertoire that's out there - you just need to train yourself a little bit. It's a personal instrument. It's hand held - you get to find out everything about your instrument and how it works, if one tine sticks up a bit more than another - you get to know that about your instrument.
KM: Tines that are bent up slightly higher or lower than the neighboring tines - you know there is a fix for that! Take a pen and push down with the butt side, really hard on the tine about 1-2 cm from the bridge - then let up and see if you have permanently bent the tine down. If it still pokes up, push down a little harder until you permanently bend the metal.
AC: That's OK - I don't want you to change it! When you learn on a mallet instrument, you are taught not to look down at the instrument, but to look straight ahead at the music. When I picked up the kalimba, I was trying to do the same thing. I was trying to find ways of knowing where the notes were without having to look at them. So, having that F be just a tiny bit higher than the other notes, I knew exactly where F was. Other notes are just a bit higher, so I don't even have to look, I just know where they are.
KM: Ah! So people might want to intentionally push some of their back side chromatic tines higher or lower to help them find their way around since they can't see the back side. Another idea: this is a good technique to help blind people find their way on a diatonic Alto kalimba - the painted tines could all be raised a bit so someone could easily find their way just by touch.
KM: Another note about your chromatic kalimba, Aaron - it is one of the very first ones made, and the notes on the back are equally spaced and are not exactly behind their unflatted counterparts.
AC: I had to get used to the flats not being right behind the non-flatted notes, but the good thing about this layout is that I have more room. I play the chromatic notes with three fingers on each side, and of course, I play the front side with my thumbs. If I do leave spaces behind the notes that don't have flats, that crunches some of the notes together, and it is harder for me to play.
KM: This sounds just like what I would do on a diatonic kalimba with a glissando - dragging my thumb nail over four adjacent tines - except that I can only do GM7 and CM7 on my G Alto kalimba, while you can do any chord.
AC: I'm using the ring, the middle, and the index fingers. I don't ever use my pinky. I use a harp technique on this - harpists don't use the pinky because it's not a strong digit.
KM: That's just like the right hand (plucking) classical guitar technique - thumb and the first three fingers - a very few people use their pinky on the right hand. Left hand guitar technique, you are supposed to use your pinky, but many people don't.
AC: I've always been drawn to instruments that are symmetric - meaning both hands do the same job.
KM: That's true about the kalimba even more so than the xylophone or marimba, where the left hand tends to comp while the right hand plays the strong melody line - on the kalimba both hands are essential in almost every melody line and both hands are required for the accompaniment.
AC: Yes, both roles - support and melody - are put on top of each other in a juxtaposed way, and I prefer that - it's kind of nice. It makes it hard to comp sometimes while you play a melody, but I'm learning how to do that.
KM: Another thing you pointed out to me about your technique is that you play on your thumb and finger pads. I'm a thumb nail guy - I can play for five or six hours without experiencing pain, because I touch the tine very very lightly with my thumb pad to deaden any lingering vibrations on the tine, and then pluck with my nail. So I tell people to play with their thumb nails.
AC: I have a very different technique. I started training on my pads, as I came from playing harp. My finger and thumb pads all have calluses. But I didn't play harp for very long, because you have to retune every single string, every time you play it. That's another reason why I like the kalimbas - yes, they are hard to tune, but once you get them in tune, they hold their tuning for months!
Going back to your questions about playing technique, I pluck off of the pad of my thumbs and fingers. It makes a softer sound than the nail. When you use your nail, you get more of the upper overtones in the attack, and when you use your pads, you get more of a pure tone from the fundamental, especially on the low notes.
KM: So, there is a good amount of instructional material for the diatonic kalimba, but essentially none for the chromatic. You basically taught yourself how to play all on your own.
AC: I took my vibraphone method book and started out - just figured out where all the notes on the chromatic kalimba were, and just started out from there. Then I started with chords. Then I practiced scales in every key - for hours and hours. Start out in C, which is all on the front (on the C chromatic kalimba) - then add one sharp (key of G, with F# on the back), then one flat (key of F, with Bb on the back); then two sharps (key of D, with F# and C# on the back), then two flats (key of Bb, Bb and Eb on the back). When you add a sharp or a flat, that means there is one more tine per octave you don't play on the front, and you replace it with a tine on the back. It is actually easier for me to play with two or three flats or sharps, because that means I am playing with thumbs and fingers together, front and back, and I can play really fast.
KM: So in order to do this, you need to know about music theory aleady.
AC: A little bit.
KM: A lot of kalimba players - even good ones - don't know anything about music theory - all they know is they are able to go left right. (By the way, you can learn all of this with the Kalimba Magic transposing wheel).
AC: The kalimba is this incredible instrument in that you can just pick it up and it sounds great...
KM: ... but on the other extreme you are someone who has a complete set of knowledge of music theory and the scales...
AC: ... and I've been playing music - a bit of piano, a bit of marimba, a bit of harp - and I was able to take that knowledge and plug the kalimba into it. None of those instruments were the thing for me. But I was trying to find this instrument - the kalimba - my whole life. When I came across it, it was like: This is the one! This is the instrument for me!
KM: We've got a lot of interview material here, Aaron, and it is all so fruitful - we will have to put this stuff together as a book on playing the chromatic kalimba. But for now, let's pack it in and come back for more next month! Thank you so much!