The History and Origin of the Modern Thumb Piano

When I first heard about the kalimba, I only knew this much: It is the westernized version of the family of traditional African thumb pianos (called karimba, mbira or sansa to name a few). Now, I'm usually not very happy about the white and yellow man copying African instruments and products. That's stealing and has many bad effects on the lives of ordinary Africans. But I did some research anyway and you know what? I was completely blown away when I stumbled accross this video. You have to watch it:

Isn't this miraculous? I had to listen to it several times to fully grasp the stunning complexity of this simple idiophone. I had never imagined that this little thing could make actual music. I admit I was impressed. So I did some more research and finally found the “guilty” man: Hugh Tracey
This young English fellow was sent off by his family in 1920 to work in South Africa because it could not afford to get him a University education after his father's death. While working along the African farmers, he heard them singing their songs and playing their instruments. One of those, which caught Hugh's attention, was the mbira, a traditional African thumb piano. To make a life-long story short: Hugh fell deeply in love with African music. He spent years of his life travelling around the continent to study it's instruments and record it's musical treasures. These studies are documented in his International Library of African Music (ILAM).

The modern child of the traditional thumb piano
In the 1950s Hugh Tracey manufactured his first modern version of the traditional mbira and called it “kalimba” (a Bantu word meaning “little music”). We already know what a kalimba is from the story about the African thumb piano. But, what makes it different from it's African ancestors? The major difference is in the tuning. The traditional tuning of the original thumb pianos don't quite “make sense” to the European or American ear, as they are based on a completely different scale. Hugh re-arranged the notes in a way that Westerners can more easily relate to it: G diatonic. If you want more info on that check the Kalimba-page on Wikipedia. It explains the tunings in more detail.

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