Ask Mark
Hugh Tracey History & Traditional Mbira Instruction

Ask Mark

I get one or two dozen emails each day asking me all sorts of questions, and I answer almost every one. In this newsletter, I answer a question that was on my own mind when I bought my first kalimba in 1986, as well as a question about finding instructional materials on the traditional mbira.
—Mark Holdaway

Scott asks:

Does Hugh Tracey Still Run the Company?


When Hugh Tracey left this world in 1977, he left behind two great institutions: the International Library of African Muisc (ILAM) and the company African Musical Instruments (AMI). Both were founded in 1954, so Hugh had had a 23 year span of influence over the direction and successful running of these two organizations.

Hugh Tracey
Hugh Tracey recording a mouth bow player.
These two organizations were manifestations of Hugh Tracey's love of traditional African music and his love of learning and using new technology to spread and preserve the old traditions. ILAM houses Hugh Tracey's decades of field recordings of African Music and continues to support ethnomusicological research. AMI manufactures the world-renowned Hugh Tracey Kalimbas. Both of these institutions originated at "The Farm," Hugh Tracey's property in Krugersdorp, outside of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Andrew Tracey, Hugh's oldest son, had been working at ILAM, and it was obvious for him to take on the leadership at ILAM. His wife, Heather Tracey, had done some work with AMI, and before Hugh went on his last trip, he asked for Heather to look after AMI while he was gone. And so it fell to Heather to run AMI.

Hugh Tracey was a very charismatic figure and had tirelessly promoted African music and the kalimba around the world in his later years. He would demonstrate the kalimba as a real modern instrument by playing Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. People who heard him lecture have told me "He was a man you would never forget." But much of the international funding ILAM benefitted from was based on personal relationships with Hugh Tracey, and when he died, that funding dried up.

Andrew found a life-line for Hugh Tracey's institutions at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. They would house ILAM and provide some funding. And so both ILAM and AMI moved south to Grahamstown in 1977.

While Heather Tracey ran the company between 1977 and 1998, AMI introduced the African-tuned Karimba, an instrument central to Andrew's research, and likely very close to the original metal-tined kalimbas first made some 1300 years. But the overriding concern during Heather's tenure as AMI director was the world-wide sanctions against the slowly failing Apartheid government in South Africa. Distributors in several countries stopped carrying the Hugh Tracey kalimbas, and AMI nearly went under.

Christian Carver had just returned to South Africa after the end of Apartheid and the election of president Nelson Mandela. With Christian's background in mechanical tinkering, physics and systems maintenance and his love of music, he was a natural choice for the workshop foreman at AMI in 1998. When Heather Tracey suffered a debilitating accident, Christian stepped in as acting director of AMI in 1999. Heather did recover, but never returned to the director's job at AMI, and Christian started the process of purchasing AMI from the Traceys. A few years later, AMI bought the company Power Marimbas, the oldest marimba making company in South Africa, and brought them into the AMI family. As this more than doubled the AMI staff, Christian also moved AMI into a larger workshop on Cloncore Street in Grahamstown, South Africa, where they are located today.

Since Christian Carver came to AMI, they have introduced several new kalimba designs, they have electrified their kalimbas with the optional electronic pickups, and they now offer high quality marimbas, amadindas, traditional uhadis, and other percussion instruments.

While Andrew Tracey left ILAM at age 70 due to mandatory retirement policies at Rhodes University, ILAM continues to expand its activities - foremost of which is the retrieval of Hugh Tracey's old recordings, which are being converted from reel-to-reel tape to digital. Andrew is still close to both ILAM and AMI, and functions as something between consultant and professor emeritus.

traditional karimba
Traditional karimba.
Bethel asks:

Is There Educational Material for the Traditional Mbira?

I play an Mbira which has 15 keys, and now I am also looking to learn the one I recently bought from Zimbabwe with 23 keys. If you could point me in the right direction, I would be most grateful for I do not have anyone to show me the ropes. If there are any tutorial books that I could order from you that would be great as well. — Bethel


Does this 15 note Mbira have two rows of tines? It is probably the Mbira Nyunga Nyunga or Karimba. I sell a 17 Note variety made by Hugh Tracey. You will find a list of instructional materials at the above link.

The 23 note instrument you are getting from Zimbabwe is the Mbira Dzavadzimu, or the great mbira of the ancestral spirits. I have very limited material for Mbira Dzavadzimu: a two part series in two recent newsletters: Part I and Part II.

B. Michael Williams has a good introductory book on playing mbira.

Additionally, Mbira0racle provides instructional video on YouTube. Check out his list of 123 "Best African Music" videos.

Send me your questions! I certainly don't know everything about the kalimba, but I know a lot and I'm learning more each day.

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