Kalimba: what is it, instrument composition, sound, history, how to play, how to choose

Kalimba: what is it, instrument composition, sound, history, how to play, how to choose

Important events in the life of Africa, holidays and meetings of tribal leaders were certainly accompanied by the sound of the mbira. The name says that she “speaks with the voice of her ancestors.” The music played by the instrument could be very different in sound – gentle and pacifying or militantly disturbing. Today, the kalimba has not lost its significance, it is used as a folk instrument, used at solo festivals and for accompaniment in ensemble sound.


The homeland of the Kalimba is the African continent. The local people consider it national, support the traditions of the ancestor through use in culture. Translated from the local dialect, the name of the instrument means “little music”. The device is uncomplicated. A wooden case with a round hole acts as a resonator. It can be solid or hollow, made from wood, dried pumpkin or tortoise shell.

On the top of the case are tongues. Previously, they were made from bamboo or other types of wood. Today, an instrument with metal reeds is more common. There is no standard number of plates. Their number can vary from 4 to 100. The size and length are also different. The tongues are attached to the sill. The body shape can be rectangular or square. There are unusual forms made in the form of animal or fish heads.

Kalimba: what is it, instrument composition, sound, history, how to play, how to choose

What does kalimba sound like?

The musical instrument belongs to the family of plucked reed idiophones. The sound depends on the material of manufacture, body size, length and number of reeds. The tuning of the instrument is chromatic, allowing you to play both single notes and chords.

The plates resemble piano keys, which is why the mbira is also called the “African hand piano”. The sound depends on the size of the reed, the larger it is, the lower the sound. Short plates have a high sound. Gamma originates in the center where the longest plates are. In familiar piano fingering, the pitch of the notes rises from left to right.

Over the centuries of existence, the kalimba has hardly undergone the influence of European musical culture, but there are also instruments tuned in the usual traditional scale.

Kalimba: what is it, instrument composition, sound, history, how to play, how to choose


In religious rites, Africans used various devices with a plucked device to extract sounds. Therefore, it is impossible to consider the mbira as an ancient instrument. This is just a variety of other representatives that have appeared and disappeared, their reincarnation and improved versions.

The colonization of Africa by America led to a large outflow of enslaved people from the territory of the continent to the shores of the Antilles and Cuba. Slaves were not allowed to take personal belongings with them, but the overseers did not take away the small kalimba from them. So the mbira became widespread, the performers made changes to its structure, experimented with material, sizes, and shapes. New types of similar instruments appeared: likembe, lala, sanza, ndandi.

In 1924, the American researcher of ethnic music Hugh Tracy, during an expedition to Africa, met an amazing kalimba, the sound of which fascinated him. Later, upon returning to his homeland, he will open a factory for the manufacture of authentic instruments. His life’s work was the adaptation of the musical system, which differed from the usual Western one and did not allow European music to be played in the layout “do”, “re”, “mi” … Experimenting, he created more than 100 copies that made it possible to create exquisite harmonies of famous composers with amazing African accent.

Hugh Tracy initiated the African Music Festival, which takes place in Grahamstown, he created an international library with works by the peoples of the continent, made tens of thousands of records. His family workshop still makes kalimbas by hand. Tracy’s business is continued by his sons.

Kalimba: what is it, instrument composition, sound, history, how to play, how to choose
Kalimba made from coconut

Kalimb species

Produce a musical instrument in Germany and South America. Structurally, the varieties are divided into solid – a simple and budget option, and hollow – used by professionals. Accurate reproduction of the lively bass tones of African music is possible on large specimens. Small ones sound elegant, gentle, transparent.

The most famous factories producing lammelafons are the brands of the German musician P. Hokem and the firm of H. Tracy. The Kalimbas of Hokul have almost lost their original name, now they are sansulas. Their difference from the Malimba in a round case. The sansula looks like a metallophone placed on a drum.

Kalimba Tracy is more traditional. In production, they strive to comply with original standards, using only natural materials. The resonator body is made of wood that grows only on the African continent. Therefore, the instrument retains its authentic sound.

Kalimba: what is it, instrument composition, sound, history, how to play, how to choose
Solid-body variety

Tool application

Kalimba remains traditional for the peoples of South Africa, Cuba, Madagascar. It is used at all events, during religious ceremonies, at holidays, festivals. The smallest specimens fit easily into a pocket, they are carried with them and entertain themselves and the public in different places. Kalimba without a resonator is one of the most common “pocket” types.

“Manual piano” is used for accompaniment in ensembles and solo. Ethnic groups use professional mbiras with the ability to connect to a computer, an amplifier. There is a five-octave kalimba, the width of the “keyboard” of which is almost as wide as the piano.

How to play the kalimba

Mbiru is held with both hands, the thumbs are involved in sound extraction. Sometimes she is placed on her knees, so the performer can use the thumbs and forefingers. Calimbists confidently perform melodies even on the go, sometimes a special hammer is used to hit the reeds. The technique of the Play is not as complicated as it might seem. A person with hearing can easily learn to play the “hand piano”.

Kalimba: what is it, instrument composition, sound, history, how to play, how to choose
Playing with a special mallet

How to choose a kalimba

When choosing an instrument, one must take into account both external aesthetic perception and sound capabilities. It is better for a novice musician to choose a small copy with a small box or a completely solid one. Having learned to play it, you can move on to a larger, more complex instrument.

The scale depends on the number of reeds. Therefore, a beginner, in order to choose a kalimba, needs to decide whether he is going to play complex works or wants to play music for the soul, performing simple melodies. A beginner will be helped to play a special hammer, it will not be superfluous to purchase a tutorial and sticky stickers on the tongues – they will help not to get confused in the notes.

КАЛИМБА | знакомство с инструментом
Despacito by Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee (Kalimba cover)

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