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The History of the Kalimba

The kalimba (or thumb piano) is a modern take on the African mbira variety of instruments. It was popularized internationally in the 1960’s by a man named Hugh Tracey. Hugh Tracey was an English ethnomusicologist who traveled to Rhodesisa (now known as Zimbabwe) to help his brother run a tobacco farm. While in Rhodesia, he became fascinated by the local music culture. Because of encouragement from composers and friends alike he decided to study African music, and eventually created the International Library of African Music.

Hugh Tracey (pictured left) standing alongside his foreman Shabby.

After being popularized in the 1960’s by mister Tracey, the kalimba was sought after for it’s compact size and versatility. Performers in the Soul and R&B genres started to incorporate the thumb piano into their music. Most notably, performances by Taj Mahal and Maurice White skyrocketed the national interest in the instrument.

Maurice White playing a kalimba during a concert.