What is a Kalimba?

When reading this article, you'll learn a lot about the origins of the kalimba, how it works and more.

Are you a music lover and interested in musical instruments in general? There are several models for different styles of music, and each instrument produces a distinct sound that is pleasing to the ear. You're probably familiar with a variety of instruments such as the guitar, piano or violin. Some are very popular, and their sound is easily recognized.

However, there are other instruments that are sometimes overlooked, despite their ability to produce delectable melodies, some of which you may already have heard. It's essential to broaden your knowledge of musical instruments from around the world. That's why we've decided to offer you a comprehensive essay on the kalimba.

Have you ever heard of this instrument? Have you ever seen one at a performance? The kalimba is still relatively unknown, but that doesn't add to its uniqueness. If you'd like to find out more about the kalimba, we invite you to read the rest of this article.


origin of the kalimba

Introducing the thumb piano

To begin with, it's essential to understand that the kalimba is a musical instrument also known as the Mbira (or Mbila, Libemke, or Marimba), which is why you may hear these different names. The kalimba is a kind of lamellophone and percussion instrument that is little known, especially in France.

It has slats of different shapes and sizes, allowing you to create a variety of sounds while playing music. Its body is a traditional wooden kalimba stand.

As this musical instrument originated in sub-Saharan Africa, its sound is heard mainly in African music.

If you've ever listened to this type of music, you've probably heard the kalimba, whose low acoustic level enables it to emit delicate sounds and is therefore frequently used for small parties.

The keys are made of metal, and the instrument is played by pinching the various slats with the fingers to create sound vibrations that allow the piece to be interpreted beautifully.

For music lovers, however, the kalimba is often a perplexing instrument. Even if you now know what the instrument is, you may not know its history or origin. That's why we've written a section on its beginnings.

The origin of the kalimba

Before we look at the origins of the kalimba, it's essential to familiarize ourselves with an instrument by understanding the meaning of its most common name. Kalimba is a Bantu word meaning "little music". It was first used to designate this specific instrument, but has now become a general name for any instrument whose operation is similar to that of a typical thumb piano. However, the term kalimba can also refer to the instrument itself, a primitive African wooden lamellophone.

Kalimbas have been around for a long time. Traces of the instrument, for example, indicate that it was made in Zimbabwe over 1,000 years ago. The instrument was soon used for musical performances and numerous African rites, such as the ceremony of possession of the Bira spirits.

When we examine the origins of the traditional kalimba, we discover that archaeological evidence in Zambia has shown iron bands identical to those used on a kalimba. These extremely ancient traces were discovered between 500 and 700 BC. We can therefore assume that it had a close ancestor before being used in the ceremonies we know today. However, this discovery leads us to believe that these barettes are the origin of the kalimba.

This musical instrument evolved gradually in Africa before spreading to the rest of the globe. The Huhg Tracey variant is most often associated with the kalimba's popularization and seduction of the Eastern population during the twentieth century.

Indeed, its creator took the time to introduce it to the rest of the world, which is how we came to know this African instrument. As a result, it is often regarded as an African object with a complicated past. This aspect of mystery reinforces our interest in this instrument, and many people are interested in this music!

But to understand the origins of the kalimba, we first need to learn how this magnificent instrument works. That's why we've taken the trouble to write a detailed description of how the kalimba works.

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Instrument composition

Understanding the construction of a musical instrument is essential for good playing. Not only will it help you understand how sound is formed, it will also make it easier to produce the right notes.
The kalimba is often composed of a wooden construction, reasoning slats and a central bar that allows you to generate the desired sound by manipulating the various slats with your fingers. Resonance will differ according to whether it's a flat board or a hollow box, although the flat model can be enhanced if necessary by placing it on a table, piece of furniture or percussion cloth, for example.
Don't expect to be able to adjust the sound of these sticks by using different blades to produce sound vibrations. In fact, the sound will be controlled mainly by the kalimba's hollow hole, which will produce a variable resonance depending on whether the input is blocked or not. There's also the electric kalimba, which lets you use a jack plug to quickly improve acoustics and resonance.
The body of the kalimba is often made of wood and is hollow and resonant, but flat variants are also available.

How does a mbira / kalimba work?

Once you've learned to understand the construction of electric and conventional kalimbas, using them will become much simpler. You'll immediately discover that there are several models on the market. Materials vary, but so do sizes. There's a 10-key kalimba and a 17-key kalimba, for example. The decision will be determined by the function for which it is intended and the sounds you wish to produce.

So it's essential to take the time to find out how the kalimba works before choosing the type that best suits your needs and aspirations.

To begin with, the kalimba is made up of a number of blades of the same composition and width. The difference lies in the length of the blades, which allows you to produce different musical notes by pressing the metal with your fingertips.

To play the kalimba, you have to push the slats down to produce resonance on the wooden body. But it's not just the slats that make your instrument sound; it's the installation in the body that produces these distinct sounds, as well as the holes in the back of the kalimba that allow the music to reverberate and exit.

To play the electric or traditional kalimba, the performer simply holds the instrument in his or her hands and applies pressure to the various slats. However, a single hand is insufficient for a kalimba with 10 or 17 keys. Therefore, divide the keys into two equal halves using your two thumbs.

When the thumbs press certain keys, the index or middle fingers of the same hands work in unison to open or close the holes in the instrument's body. This combination of actions modifies the sound by manipulating sound vibrations.

If playing the kalimba as an experienced musician is difficult at first, it's a simple musical instrument to master. Whatever the keys used, the singing will be harmonic and the notes correct. This makes it an excellent instrument to accompany children's musical awakening. 

To produce correct sounds, you'll need to practice, starting with the coordination of the fingers on each hand. Poor coordination will prevent you from opening or closing the hole correctly and on time (note that this practice is optional and only takes place once you've mastered the instrument).

Before trying to play an entire piece, you'll need to practice, although this is much easier than with many other instruments.

Kalimba training

Now you understand the history and function of the Kalimba. You should look for an electric Kalimba and start studying this new African instrument.

There are several kalimbas on the market. You can start with a 10-key Kalimba, for example, as it has fewer strings to learn at first. However, if you prefer, you can practice with a 17-key Kalimba! The price of electric kalimbas varies according to the materials used. We therefore recommend that you evaluate several models, or ask someone who has already played one for advice.

Once you've bought your musical instrument, all you have to do is practice until you can play a tune. We recommend that you start with short pieces with a minimum of alterations. This will help you to concentrate over several sessions in order to master your new kalimba. It will also help you improve coordination not only between the fingers of one hand, but also between your two hands.

We recommend that you learn to organize the notes on the kalimba so that you can progress more quickly. This will help you master this sonorous instrument more quickly.

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Relax, make music, enjoy yourself...
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If you're not satisfied, you can take a look at another definition of kalimba.