Hugh Tracey Kalimbas

With the Hugh Tracey kalimba series we have included legendary musical instruments into our DAN MOI shop: The kalimbas of this English music collector and ethnomusicologist were the first being available at European and North American shops in the 1950ies. They carry the long history of a musical instrument which was originally played in African countries and has become well known in the whole world within only a few years.

In 1921 Hugh Tracey traveled to present-day Zimbabwe to work on his older brother’s tobacco farm. Upon arrival he immediately started being interested in the language and culture of the Shona people (the local population). From that time on he saw himself as record-keeper and messenger for the music and language of the region. In the following decades he repeatedly traveled through Central and Southern Africa. He gave presentations, wrote articles, recorded music, and took pictures. His work is archived at the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in Grahamstown, South Africa. Part of his work can be looked at online.

In 1954 Hugh Tracey founded the instrument making company African Musical Instruments (AMI). The first instrument marketed by AMI was the kalimba. Tracey wanted to make an instrument, which was played in Africa in manifold forms, accessible for people in the entire world. To do so he modified kalimbas into the diatonic scale. The fascinating fact about the Hugh Tracey kalimba is that it is a hybrid musical instrument – a combination of Western scales and African design.

Original kalimbas by AMI are part of our selection at DAN MOI. They are produced in South Africa. Their corpus is made of kiaat hardwood. This kind of wood is very hard and resistant, and it stems from the Wild-Teak trees which grow in many regions in Southern and Eastern Africa. The tines of the instrument are made of high quality metal. In combination with the wood they support the sound properties of the kalimbas.

The appealing thing about the Hugh-Tracey kalimbas is the diverse tunings: there are kalimbas with diatonic, chromatic, pentatonic, and “African” tuning. Many of the models are equipped with a pick-up. The “African” tuned instruments are available in a Mbira-tuning as Hugh Tracey documented them in the Zambezi valley. Additionally rattles are attached to this 17 key kalimba.

We give our thanks to Mark Holdaway (Kalimba Magic) for allowing us to use his video clips and sound examples. By the way, on his webpage you will find more interesting information and many links to kalimbas in general and the Hugh Tracey series in particular (e.g. playing instructions and song books).

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