A Message from Mark Holdaway
My Kalimba Fixing Mission

Socorro NM

The year was 1990. I had been playing kalimba for four years and had moved to Socorro, NM to work as an astronomer designing the ALMA Radio Telescope, which is currently being constructed in Chile.

I had struck up with a group of Irish musicians. One of them, Martha, was quite taken by the kalimba and asked me where she could get one. The only place I knew of was the Briggs and Briggs Music Store in Cambridge, MA and, as luck would have it, I was returning to Boston within the month. (By the way, Briggs and Briggs closed around 2000, after having been open for 110 years.)

I walked into Briggs and Briggs in Harvard Square, and looked at the four or five Hugh Tracey kalimbas that were displayed in the glass case. Gee, I had never picked out a kalimba before! The Treble I had about four years earlier was the only one they had had in the store down the road in Central Square. (Central Square is halfway between Harvard and MIT, and I used to joke that Central Square is, by definition, halfway between any two points, and the fabric of space-time would always warp to make that so.) I selected the one with the nicest wood, "I'll take that one." The clerk gave it to me.

Btw, I paid about $75 for that Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba 20 years ago. Compare to now: $127. Not bad, all things considered.

When I came back to my new home in Socorro, NM, and proudly presented it to my musical colleague Martha, she removed it from the blue box, her face shining with excitement—until she played it. "One of these notes isn't a note!" she said, repeatedly flicking her thumb nail off one of the higher tines. THUD! THUD! THUD!

My face must have turned red because I was deeply embarrassed. How could I have bought a kalimba without trying it out??? But I had assumed they were all the same. I had sat in a Dallas guitar store 9 years earlier, playing about ten different models of guitar before settling on a Martin D-28. So I knew guitars were not all the same. So why did I not exercise the same care when I purchased Martha's kalimba? I had made a very bad assumption.

Well, I was a PhD physcist. Hmmm, I am supposed to understand things about the way objects in the physical world move and vibrate. "Um, can I see what I can do?" I asked. But I couldn't figure out what was wrong with this otherwise perfect kalimba. I asked other physicists what the problem might be. None of us could figure it out.

Twenty years have passed since that fateful day, and I have learned a whole lot since then. I now know how to fix all kinds of problems with kalimbas, and I share this knowledge with you. As the Kalimba Doctor, I get one or two old kalimbas sent to me each week for fixing up, and people find them much improved when they get them back. In this newsletter, I tell the story of how music therapist Carolyn Koebel brought me three kalimbas that had been declared nearly useless. I estimate there are between 100,000 and 1,000,000 old rusty kalimbas in America that are hopelessly out of tune and functionally useless in their current state, but I am convinced that I could bring most of them back to a productive and beautiful life.

Kalimba Doctor

Those anguished moments watching Martha pluck at that dead tine twenty years ago have instilled in me a desire that I would almost call a mission. I don't want anybody to have the experience that my friend Martha and I had. Before I send out a kalimba, I make sure that it plays well. I want you to dance with joy because your kalimba sings with a voice of clarity and beauty.

That said, if any kalimba slips through the cracks and ends up in your hands in a state that you are not happy with, contact me and we will first see if we can't fix the problem through instruction (i.e., tuning or buzz fixing are skills that you will need anyway to keep your kalimba in top working order) and, if that doesn't solve the problem, you can send the kalimba back and I will replace the instrument or refund your money. (Just for clarity, let's say you didn't drop the instrument or anything, and that this refund policy is in effect for one year after you purchase it from Kalimba Magic.)

In next month's Message, my wife Deb and I together will share with you our experience of using the kalimba to comfort a woman in the last hours of her life.

—Mark Holdaway, April 23, 2010


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