17 February 2020

Why is the Kalimba a Good Instrument for You?

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

Here are the reasons, from my experience

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 I have to admit that the kalimba is my favorite. It is certainly the instrument that I have become most recognized for. And it is the instrument that I make my living through.

My first reason for 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.

And that is really it: what dance steps do your thumbs need to do? So, playing kalimba really puts your consiousness into your body, in a unique way.

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My second reason for playing kalimba: it is relatively easy to make fairly complex music on the kalimba. The kalimba can play several notes at the same time, like guitar or piano or marimba or harp. However, the way the notes are arranged on most kalimbas helps you easily play melody lines along with self accompaniment by way of chords or 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, making many sorts of melodies plus accmpaniment 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. But most of the time, I feel that this is an excellent tradeoff.)

The third reason for playing kalimba: the simplicity of the kalimba becons 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 can help us to reflect on what we have done and who we are. And if those actions and beings don't fit with what we want ourselves to be, work with kalimba can give us insights and guidance to become that person we 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 for playing kalimba: it is a unique sound that inspires you to make unique music. I remember the first time I played an 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 – though 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 to play kalimba: it is small, easy to carry and easy to hold, has a low environmental impact, and is realtively inexpensive. I know some people who have to take an entire carload of equipment when they go play music (most of them are drummers)... 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 to play kalimba: it is a living, breathing music box.

I have absolutely no proof of this assertion, but I suspect that the European music boxes, first made in the late 1700s, were actually inspired by the 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 the mechanistic European answer to the free playing African kalimba.

But the kalimba is a music box that can play whatever you want, not only the preprogrammed song. The kalimba brings all the nostalgia 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 ready made path into people's hearts. They are ready to listen to it, they are ready to be moved emotionally by it's 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 grand parent.

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 the adjacent tines one by one in a glissando move.

Well, lets add one more reason to play kalimba: I have been studying kalimba for 34 years, learning to play in a style that the instrument suggests. I have been studying 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 decades 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.

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