kalimbas at home

The name Kalimba (which means “little music”) was coined by english/south african ethnofolkmusicologist Hugh Tracey in the 1950s when he designed, manufactured, and merchandized the instrument commonly found in stores.

youtube playlist of anarchestra kalimbas


The native african instrument he derived it from was the Mbira (which has existed for 3000 years originally with bamboo tines and later with the now standard metal ones).  I have chosen to use Tracey’s name for the instruments I make out of respect for the Shona tradition of Mbira, which I have studied but am not connected with.

cosmas magaya

Cosmas Magaya with a Shona Mbira.

One of my favorite and most listened to CDs


It is sometimes called a thumb piano.

Culturally, it is an instrument that, unlike any others I know of, has no primitive ’cousins’ outside of its continent of origin, Africa.

They don’t readily fit in any of the standard categories of instruments (both Kalimbas and Xylophone-type instruments end up not completely comfortably in the ‘percussion’ group as idiophones).

Among the many interesting qualities they possess are their unique ergonomics (no other instrument is played primarily by the thumbs —which is a very efficient and natural action outside of music, as in texting) and the inharmonicity (the degree to which the frequencies of overtones -also known as partials- depart from whole multiples of the fundamental frequency in the harmonic series) of the sounds produced by the tines.  In some musical circles inharmonicity is considered undesirable as it undermines the ‘purity’ of the equal tempered system, but for someone like me it adds richness, depth, and complexity to the soundworld.

When I first began building instruments, I started with Kalimbas.  They are physically simple and endlessly adaptable/variable/amenable to experimentation.  I have made dozens of them over time.

These are some of them.  All of them are amplified (‘electric’): the first two with piezo pickups, the rest with magnetic pickups.

Included with them are other “free bar” (mounted at one end and free to vibrate) instruments.

lamellop 00-01 chilmark

Lamellop 00 chilmark

trinidad & tobago 02 chilmark

Trin and Tob  01-02 chilmark

pretty how town 04 santa fe

Pretty How Town  04 santa fe

kalimbent 05 santa fe

Kalimbent   05 santa fe

played with sticks rather than thumbs and fingers.

klam. 09 tucson

Klamm  09 tucson

klem 10 tucson

Klem  10 tucson

kalben cool 10 tucson

Kalben Kool   10 tucson

played with sticks rather than thumbs and fingers.

klogg 11 tucson

Klogg  11 tucson

baby K198

Baby K  15 tucson

Baby K lives on Gurnagin.


Klydd   15 tucson

Klydd is mounted on Stigo and is (usually) tuned an octave lower.


Kzymyryk  16 tucson

One drone tine excited by a leather wheel.  The vertical tines can be bowed or plucked.


Berlubang  17 Tucson

The perforated sheets are tunable and can be altered by placing bolts through the holes.

byg actuel 17 tucson

Byg Actuel  17 Tucson

The wheels (one smooth, on toothed) actuate various sounding objects (saws, springs, etc.)

klyad 17 tucson

Klyad  17 Tucson

Small tined (3/8″ and 1/4″) kalimba.


5 thoughts on “Kalimbas”

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