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The kalimba, also known as the "thumb piano," is a unique musical instrument with roots dating back thousands of years in Africa. While deeply rooted in African traditions, this portable and melodious instrument is gaining popularity worldwide. Let us explore its rich cultural heritage.

The Genesis of the Kalimba in West Africa

The exact origins of the kalimba remain unclear, but it is believed that this instrument was first played nearly 3,000 years ago. The earliest kalimbas with metal tines are thought to have emerged in the 8th century. According to Gerhard Kubik, author of "Kalimba, Nsansi, Mbira: Lamellophone in Africa," the very first kalimbas were made from plant materials such as bamboo, 3,000 years ago in West Africa, in present-day Cameroon.

Original Materials


Bamboo and pla

~1000 BC

Metal tines

~700 AD

Metal tines, which were more durable and produced a clearer and more powerful sound than plant materials, quickly became the standard for kalimba production during the Iron Age. However, the tradition of making kalimbas from natural materials such as plants still persists among some artisans.

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The Mbira Dzavadzimu - The "Great Mbira of Ancestral Spirits"

While the kalimba typically consists of a small wooden body with 6 to 10 tines, the Shona people of Zimbabwe developed a larger version called the Mbira Dzavadzimu, the "great mbira of ancestral spirits." This version could have up to 25 metal tines and even incorporate a natural gourd as an amplifier called a "deze."

The mbira played an essential role in Shona religious ceremonies and rituals, illustrating how the kalimba is a rich and diverse African instrument, transformed multiple times through its adoption by different peoples and cultures across the continent.

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Hugh Tracey - The Ambassador of the Kalimba

It was only in the mid-20th century that Western interest in the kalimba truly took off, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of Dr. Hugh Tracey. Born in 1903 into a modest family, Tracey was forced to abandon his studies to help his brother on a tobacco farm in what was then called Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

It was there that he developed a fascination with the music and culture of the native workers, discovering the mbira and many other African instruments. Encouraged by the composer Gustav Holst, Tracey embarked on a quest to study and preserve the rich music of the African continent, which was largely ignored or even scorned by Europeans.

During the 1920s and 1930s, he undertook numerous expeditions across Africa to record and document the traditional music and instruments of various cultures. His efforts helped safeguard a heritage that was in danger of being overshadowed by the grand influence of Western music.

In 1954, Tracey founded the ILAM (International Library of African Music), one of the largest libraries of African music, bringing together contemporary research and historical documents. This institution ensures the continuity of African music and ideas in the face of Western cultural hegemony.

In the same year, fueled by his passion for the mbira he had discovered years before, he launched his own company, AMI (African Musical Instruments), aimed at financing his future expeditions. It was in this context that he designed the "Hugh Tracey Kalimba," a kalimba adapted to Western scales with alternatingly tuned tines to play the "do-re-mi" scale.

Made from the abundant local wood kiaat, this model revolutionized the instrument, opening it up to the Western world of music. It quickly became the most popular style of kalimba in the West.

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Read more : What's the kalimba and why should you learn it ? 

The Unique Sound of the Kalimba Captivates the World

Thanks to Dr. Tracey's preservation efforts, the kalimba finally gained recognition beyond African borders. In 1973 and 1974, Maurice White of the band Earth, Wind & Fire used a "Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba" on the songs "Evil" and "Kalimba Story," introducing millions of listeners to this unique and enchanting sound.

Since then, the kalimba continues to captivate with its simplicity of play, lightweight nature ideal for young musicians or playing on the go, and its ability to accompany with its light and resonant melodies.

The kalimba has found its way into successful film soundtracks such as "Alien" and "Edward Scissorhands,"and it has been embraced by musicians across various genres, including folk, world music, and even contemporary pop.

Today, the kalimba is not only played as a traditional African instrument but has also become a creative tool for composers, songwriters, and music enthusiasts worldwide. Its portability and accessibility have contributed to its popularity, making it a go-to instrument for people of all ages and musical backgrounds.

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In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional African music and instruments, including the kalimba. Artisans and musicians are exploring different variations and designs, incorporating modern materials and innovative features while still honoring the instrument's historical significance.

The kalimba's fascinating history and allure continue to inspire musicians to explore its unique sound and incorporate it into contemporary musical expressions. Whether you're a seasoned musician or a curious beginner, the kalimba offers a captivating journey into the rich cultural heritage of Africa and its musical traditions.


The kalimba, also known as the "thumb piano", is a unique musical instrument with ancestral origins dating back nearly 3,000 years in West Africa. Although its exact beginnings remain unclear, it is believed to have been initially made from plant materials like bamboo before the use of more durable metal tines from the 8th century onwards.

Widely spread across the African continent, the kalimba has undergone multiple variations according to different cultures, such as the "great mbira of the ancestral spirits" of the Shona people in Zimbabwe with 25 tines. It was the ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey who served as an ambassador for the kalimba in the Western world in the 20th century, designing a model adapted to Western musical scales.

Popularized notably by the band Earth, Wind & Fire in the 1970s, the kalimba now fascinates with its unique sound and ease of playing. It has found its way into various musical genres, from folk to pop, perpetuating the heritage of this rich ancient African instrumental tradition.

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Frequently asked questions

What is the age of the kalimba?

Although its exact origins are unknown, it is estimated that the kalimba has been played for nearly 3,000 years, with the earliest examples of metal-tined kalimbas dating back approximately 1,300 years.

What materials were used for the early kalimbas?

The very first kalimbas were made from plant materials such as bamboo. Metal tines only appeared with the Iron Age around the 7th century AD.

Which people developed the "grand mbira of ancestral spirits"?

It was the Shona people of Zimbabwe who developed this imposing version of the kalimba, known as the Mbira Dzavadzimu, which can have up to 25 keys.

Who is responsible for the Western popularity of the kalimba?

Dr. Hugh Tracey, a British ethnomusicologist, played a significant role in introducing the kalimba to the Western world, particularly through his adaptation of it to Western musical scales.

In which musical genres is the kalimba used?

The unique sound of the kalimba has captivated many artists, and it is used in various musical genres such as folk, world music, and even contemporary popular music.