Playing Harmonica with the Kalimba: Part 1

The harmonica is a simple instrument that you can play with many instruments, including the kalimba! In this five part series, you will learn how the harmonica and the kalimba are related, and why the harmonica is such a great companion to the kalimba.


I once read a quote from an African kalimba player: "To play kalimba without singing is like eating rice without beans." B. Michael Williams is another player who puts as much effort into his singing as he does into his playing. But what if you don't like your voice, or can't sing?

If I were someone else, I might encourage you to study voice training. But as I myself am somewhat vocally challenged, I'll give you a different idea: Go and get a harmonica! Just as you can sing and play kalimba at the same time, you can play harmonica and kalimba at the same time.

Conceptually, the harmonica is very similar to the kalimba. Harmonicas come in different keys, and almost all are diatonic (as opposed to chromatic). If you have a kalimba in G, you will want a G harmonica. Most Catania kalimbas will be in C and will require a C harmonica. The Sansula is in A minor, which will require a C harmonica (C major and A minor have the same notes)—unless it is in Beautiful E tuning, in which case it will require an E harmonica. A Bb Treble or any kalimba in G minor (karimba, Alto, etc.) will require a Bb harmonica.

The similarity between kalimba and harmonica goes further. To go up a scale on the kalimba, you need to alternate Right - Left - Right - Left, each time moving one tine further to the outside. To go up a scale on the harmonica, you need to switch between breathing in and out (analogous to switching between left and right on the kalimba), always going further up (to the right on the harmonica - analogous to always going outwards on the kalimba). However, the harmonica has several idiosyncratic details, such as skipped notes, a doubled note, and the fact that the lower holes blow low and suck high while the upper holes blow high and suck low. Details aside, you will quickly get the hang of the harmonica. Just as you can play chords on the kalimba by play adjacent tines, you can play chords on the harmonics by blowing through adjacent holes - or by sucking on adjacent holes.

I think the harmonica is a perfect accompaniment for the kalimba. All you need is the Bob Dylan-style harmonica holder and you are ready to go. As there are no rules yet for how to do this (aside from the suggestion that you get a harmonica that is in the same key as your kalimba), you are more or less on your own in figuring out what to do next, but given the similarities in the symmetry of the kalimba and the harmonica, I think that these two instruments may be easier to integrate than, say, guitar and harmonica.

Listen to harmonica played with kalimba (Bb Treble).

One thing that makes the harmonica a good compliment to the kalimba is the shape of the sounds. A kalimba note will start out with a very strong attack with lots of high frequency components, and will quickly die down to a nearly pure sine wave (i.e., nearly a single frequency), which dies out exponentially over about 5 seconds. So, it is a percussive spike followed by a bit of a hum. The harmonica can be played with a percussive attack, but more often it is played with a very smooth attack. You can also make the sound swell and grow over many seconds. The kalimba tine has very few adjustable parameters to provide emotion and feeling, while the harmonica is like a clear connection straight to the soul of an expressive player who can modulate the sound in many ways - by volume, by pitch, and by overtones - well, the box-mounted kalimbas can also modulate the overtones of some notes by covering and uncovering the sound holes.

Shapes of Kalimba notes Shapes of Harmonica notes
Left: kalimba notes (amplitude vs time), Right: harmonica notes

Next month, we will discuss the blues harmonica technique known as "cross harp" and how cross harp relates to the kalimba.

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