Posts Tagged ‘African Music Culture’
Simply beautiful, the finger harp is an integral part of African music culture that originated in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Africa it is known as the mbira, but this double-consonant word confuses many westerners, so in America it is translated into the finger harp; the name explaining the purpose of this lovely instrument.
The finger harp is played by a single musician; however it is rarely performed as a solo. More frequently, it is played as a feature of other musicians, vocalists and dancers.
If there is one word to describe the music of Africa, it is variety, and the options exist with the same instrument. For example, the finger harp is not a uniformly designed instrument. There are 33-note versions played by performers in Zimbabwe and smaller types of 6 notes the Bushmen of Kalahari use.
And it’s not just the size that varies; the name itself changes from region to region in Africa. It is mbira in Zimbabwe, but the same instrument is called the Kalimba in Kenya, the ikembe in Rwanda and likembe in the Congo.
Other names include the sanza, sansa, gourd piano, marimba, marimbula, and thumb piano. You can see why westerners are confused by this instrument as it is difficult to keep up with the names!
The kalimba was actually introduced by an Englishman named Hugh Tracey who moved to Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, to assist in the running of a tobacco farm. Tracey created a diatonic instrument similar to the mbira in the 1960s which became popular around the world.
Translated, the Kalimba means “little music” and it’s perfect for playing harmony with both thumbs. You’ll find this instrument throughout the world, particularly the Middle East, Asia and North and South America.
Regardless of how it is called, the kalimba, or mbira or finger harp has an important place in the culture of African music.
The translation of Kalimba is little music, and it is a perfect blend of African sounds adapted to include Western tastes.
Developed in the 1960s by Englishman Hugh Tracey, it is often referred to as the thumb piano for allowing the musician to play harmony using both thumbs.
Tracey relocated from Great Britain to Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, to assist in the operation of a tobacco farm owned by his brother in the 1920’s. While there, he became fascinated by the African music culture, particularly an instrument called the mbira. Tracey invented the modern Kalimba based on the construction of the mbira.
There is some cross-pollination of these instruments in Africa. In Zimbabwe the population still refers to the instrument as the mbira and in Kenya they say Kalimba. To further confuse the issue, in Rwanda and the Congo the instrument is called an ikembe. Less common names are the sanza, marimba and marimbula.
Perhaps the most generic name for this marvelous instrument is the thumb piano, gourd piano and finger harp.
Essentially, the Kalimba, pronounced ka-leem’-buh, is a wooden box with metal keys called lamellas adhered to the top. The keys are sometimes made from cane while the box is made from an African hardwood called kyat.
Traditional African self-reliance has some of these beautiful instruments fashioned out of bicycle spokes, spoon handles or discarded wire that is shaped into the necessary length for plucking. These strings are plucked with the two thumbs or a combination of thumbs and fingers.
The strings or keys are 20 to 24 in number, placed on two bars on the sound box. The loose ends of the keys are various lengths which provide the different pitches. Like any stringed instrument of the West, a longer string produces a lower pitch and a shorter string accords a higher pitch.
Our friend Samite is a master of Kalimba music, so why not invite his artistry into your home?
The African music culture has an important place in society. It is completely different from Western sensibilities. Whereas Western musicians aim to create a pleasing combination of sound and lyrics, African musicians seek to express all aspects of life, from joy to pain and heartbreak, and this doesn’t always sound “pretty”.
An appreciation of music begins at a very early age in Africa. Young children take an active role in the learning process by learning how to make instruments for themselves soon after learning how to walk; around the age of three or four.
Adult recreational activities have a foundation of learning in music. Activities like hunting, processing corn, farming, fishing and even attending life events like weddings and funerals are all part of early learning with music.
The bond between the African man and his music is so intimate that many cultures do not even have a word that defines music. Drums and percussive instruments are often synonymous with man and women are advised to treat the drum with great care so as not to symbolically mistreat her man.
There are some African societies in which women are prohibited from touching a drum, no matter the circumstance. Interestingly, the influence of Islamic and European cultures has softened this ancient position. Furthermore, music in Africa is often paired with other art forms like dance and poetry. It is referred to as the greatest form of expression.
Since music is so ingrained in the African culture, particularly in the history of men, you would think every African is a musician, however this is not true. In some cultures musicians are semi-professional. They earn their living in a certain way, and then compliment their earnings with their music, making African music culture a revenue maker for some.
Listen to pure African music by ordering Samite’s latest CD: “My Music World“.