17 February 2020

Why is the Kalimba Such a great instrument to play?

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

There are so many reasons to love it!

I have been playing music since I was 8 years old – for almost 50 years. I did not discover the kalimba until I was 24 – about 34 years ago. I have played many different instruments, and though I love many of them, the kalimba is my favorite. It is the instrument that I have become most recognized for, and it is also the instrument that I make my living through.

What are my reasons for loving playing the kalimba so much?

The first reason why I love playing kalimba: It helps you see and understand music in a completely different way from any other instrument. The unique note layout of the kalimba requires that you understand it physically more than mentally. You learn what sort of thumb dancing you need to do to accomplish a certain song. In a totally unique way, playing kalimba really puts your consciousness into your body.

 

 

My second reason for loving kalimba: It is relatively easy to make fairly complex music on the kalimba. The way the notes are arranged on most kalimbas helps you play not only melody lines but makes it easy to accompany melody by way of chords, arpeggios or even counterpoint.

(There is a flip side to the ease with which you can create complex music. The kalimba steers you in a particular direction that makes many sorts of melodies plus accompaniment easy, but also makes other complex playing difficult or impossible. For example, the kalimba is a diatonic instrument and cannot play general chromatic music such as we see in jazz and classical pieces, as well as in certain spots in popular music. Most of the time, though, I feel that this is an excellent trade-off.)

The third reason I love playing kalimba: The simplicity of the kalimba beckons you to enter into a simplicity of mind. If you approach the kalimba from a brute strength point of view, you will not really connect with the spirit of the instrument. Make yourself peaceful, soft, open, receptive. Open your mind to tenderness. And the kallimba will slowly reveal its secrets to you over the days and years that you play.

So, playing the kalimba is like a form of meditation. And as meditation, the kalimba can transform us. It has helped me to reflect on what I have done and who I am. And if those actions and "selves" haven't fit with what I've wanted myself to be, work with kalimba has given me insights and guidance to become that person I do want to be.

The fourth reason: Playing kalimba is just plain fun! When you are on a roll, when the right notes just come out of you, seemingly as if by magic... when you can feel yourself getting better day by day and even moment by moment, it is a real thrill.

(Actually, chasing after that thrill of getting better and better, watching the notes line up at my thumb tips, seemingly all on their own, is one of the reasons I keep learning to play new types of kalimba. It's a good ride.)

The fifth reason playing kalimba is so great: It is a unique sound that inspires you to make unique music. I remember the first time I played electric guitar through a distortion box, when I was 14. Oh my God! It was this feeling of power. I felt that I was no longer limited by what I had played on guitar in the past, or what I could imagine playing. I felt that the guitar (plus the distortion) had a mind of its own, and my job was to just get out of its way and let it happen. The electric guitar plus distortion pedal pulled music out of me that I never imagined I had in me!

Playing kalimba is a lot like that, except that it pulls music out of me in a totally different direction. Instead of the teenage angst and aggression and fear and loathing that the distorted electric guitar inspired, the kalimba inspires simple and clear harmonies, beautifully charming melodies, and real musical and emotional sensitivity. Playing kalimba is a bit like having an angel pedal instead of a distortion pedal.

And if you have the courage to play your kalimba with other people (you will need to be aware of the key of the music, and play your kalimba accordingly – and THAT is a huge topic in and of itself), the unique voice of the kalimba can fill its own special niche in the musical ecosystem.

The sixth reason I just love kalimbas: The kalimba is small, easy to carry and easy to hold, has a low environmental impact, and is relatively inexpensive. I know some people who have to take an entire carload of equipment when they go play music ... and I know people who can travel with a small case of just a few small instruments. Depending upon the gig, I can be either one of these people, and I must say I enjoy showing up for a gig with just three or four kalimbas. It is light and easy.

And the magic seventh reason that playing kalimba is so wonderful: it is a living, breathing music box.

I have absolutely no proof of the following assertion, but I suspect that the European music boxes, first made in the late 1700s, were actually inspired by African kalimbas. There are many kalimbas in European museums that go back to the 1800s, but surely there were the rare and prized African kalimbas that had been traded to Europeans before then. The music box is sort of a mechanistic European version of the free-playing African kalimba.

But the kalimba is a music box that can play whatever you want, not only a preprogrammed song. The kalimba nostalgically brings the sound of the antique music box, but it brings the emotion of the songs you play and the way you touch the instrument. Because the kalimba brings the nostalgia of the music box, it has a readymade path into people's hearts. They are ready to listen to it, they are ready to be moved emotionally by its music as they recall some of the times they were lulled to sleep by a music box in their childhood... or as they recall a tender moment with a loved parent or grandparent.

When I play kalimba, I often play up the music box connection in a systematic way. For example, the individual notes in a chord on a music box are commonly played one at a time, not all at exactly the same time, making a brrrinnngggg sound. I get the same affect on the kalimba by strumming my thumb nail over adjacent tines one by one in a glissando move.

Well, let's add one more reason for you to love kalimba: You can take advantage of knowledge and expertise, through many types of educational materials. I have been studying kalimba for 3 decades or so, learning to play in a style that the instrument suggests. I have been studying and playing African kalimba music for 15 years, and I understand much about the African way of playing the kalimba. And I have been writing books filled with the insights I have gleaned from my years of study, and I provide these for you in both hard copy and electronic ebook form. In other words, you won't be starting from scratch, as I did, but you will be able to stand on my shoulders, and see what I have seen and have understood.

After that? Where you go with the kalimba is totally up to you. May you have a wonderful journey!

About the Author

Mark Holdaway

Mark Holdaway

Mark Holdaway has been playing kalimba for over 30 years.  He invented his kalimba tablature in 2004, and has been writing books and instructional materials for kalimba ever since.  His business, Kalimba Magic, is based on the simple proposition that the kalimba is a real musical instrument capable of greatness.  Mark's kalimba books are a down payment on this proposition.