The historical evolution of Kalimba

- Jun 26, 2020-

In Africa, Kalimba has a very long history, which can be traced back to 3,000 years ago, but the metal keys of Kalimbaare only about 1300 years old.

Kalimba was first recorded in history

First, let's understand some terms: there are more than 100 different types of traditional African thumb pianos, as well as mbira, kalimba, Sansa, and kalimba. In 1954, Hugh Tracey chose one of these names, Kalimba, as the name of the instrument he was about to sell around the world. In 1961, he also wrote a paper, "Case about the name of Mbira", which proposed that we use mbira as a general term for traditional African thumb pianos. Today, outside Africa, the name kalimba is also used as a general term for all non-traditional thumb pianos.

The first European to record Mbira was the Portuguese explorer and missionary Father Dos Santos in what is now Mozambique in 1586. He recorded the performance of his so-called "ambira" 9-tone thumb piano instrument. The player will play the long fingernail nails, this instrument will produce a "sweet, gentle and harmonious music". Because these instruments are relatively quiet, they are always played in the king's palace.


Double Side Keys Kalimba Solid Mahogany Thumb Piano

Solid Mahogany Thumb Piano Mbira Instrument

Ancient origin

Before Father Dos Santos recorded Carimba in 1586, it was already a very old musical instrument. Gerhard Kubik mentioned in his 1988 book "Kalimba, Nsansi, Mbira: Thumbpianoof Africa" that Kalimba was invented twice in Africa: the first Kalimba was born about 3000 years ago and is located in Cameroon today Nearby West Africa was a thumb piano made entirely of plant materials, such as a bamboo thumb piano. Then, about 1,300 years ago, the Zambezi Valley in southeastern Africa ushered in the Iron Age, and some people made a move to make kalimba keys from metal.

In Africa today, keys made of plant materials and louder, longer-lived metal keys are still used to make traditional kalimba. The kalimba of plant material (usually made of bamboo) cannot be stored for a long time, nor can it immediately have a large consumer market, so there are fewer people selling it.

South Africa ushered in the Iron Age more than 1,300 years ago. Africans are very good at smelting and making iron. Gerhard Kubik's hypothesis: after the people in the Zambezi Valley started using iron, they began to make kalimba with metal keys. But when Europeans used African lands as colonies, Africans could not manufacture their own metal, so the kalimba keys were made of nails, bicycle spokes or other scrap metal. Since the birth of Hugh Tracey Kalimba in 1954, most modern Kalimbas have used electroplated spring steel to make the keys.


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Getting more complex in the Zambezi Valley

In the Zambezi Valley near Zimbabwe, mbira has evolved into a different complex musical instrument with a rich musical tradition and is highly integrated with culture. Although simple musical instruments with 6-10 keys are widely found in sub-Saharan Africa, the Shona people in Zimbabwe today have created mbira dzavadzimu with 21-25 keys, that is, "a great inheritance of ancestral souls" "mbira", this kind of thumb piano plays an important role in their religion, helping people keep in touch with their ancestors.

Spread all over Africa

As mbira spread throughout Africa, different clans or tribes have created their own versions. Over time, each tribe has modified the musical instrument design, such as how many keys are on the instrument, or what kind of board or gourd is used to install mbira. Mbiras are also specially tuned by each tribe to play their unique music. Kalimba/mbira is a truly flexible instrument.

From the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, the slaved Congolese people moved around Africa and were used as transport workers by the Belgian colonists. This has become an important way for the spread of this instrument. These people took their kalimba and introduced them to many new African tribes who had never seen kalimba. Until the 1950s, the Bushmen in the Kalahari desert, an independent nomadic tribe, had never seen Kalimna.


Different cultural uses

In addition to the many changes in the design and sound of Kalimba, the people of each tribe have different scenarios in their social life. In some African cultures, mbira (and its descendant Kalimba) is a personalized choice of musical instruments, which can be carried with you to help you spend your times take the bus. In some places, it is a musical instrument to celebrate the wedding, or an instrument played for the king. It is widely used as an accompaniment to sound. There is a saying that says: "Only Kalimba does not sing, just like rice without beans". In some communities, it is a method of communicating ancestors, which can bring the souls of ancestors back to a moment in order to listen to their suggestions.

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Edit by Height Musical Instrument News Department