Contextual Associations

This kalimba is a lamellaphone idiophone inspired by indigenous Bantu African instruments and manufactured in the Republic of South Africa. The indigenous kalimba is used mostly for personal entertainment or dance music, but can also be played in bira spirit possession ceremonies. Hugh Tracey, an ethnomusicologist working with this tradition, adapted the original kalimba mbira into the kalimba pictured here for a Western, non-African audience. Information included with the instrument states "The Kalimba is a new musical instrument with an old history, the latest member of the African family of instruments known by names such as Mbira, Likembe, Chisanzi, Endongo, Timbrh, Marimbula ... It came into being because its originator, Hugh Tracey, after a lifetime's work of recording and studying African music, wanted to introduce this fascinating, companionable and uniquely African instrument to the rest of the world, adapted to the Western scale so that people everywhere could appreciate it. Workshop-made today by African craftsmen, using Sheffield steel with mubvamaropa, the resonant hardwood traditionally used for the Mbira in central and southern Africa, the Kalimba embodies Hugh Tracey's improvements in design and performance. Several imitations already exist; what you are holding is the original, made in Africa." This instrument has no associated tradition or context of use. Its target audience is cosmopolitans who are perhaps attracted to it because it indexes Africa in a general sense.


The seventeen steel tongues/lamellae are consistent in width and thickness, differing from one another only in their length. They are held in place with a metal pressure bar that is screwed to the soundboard. The bar exerts a downward pressure on the lamellae against a backrest, a horizontal half-round piece of wood at the top of the soundboard, and a bridge, a metal rod recessed into a horizontal block of wood that is glued to the soundboard about two inches below the top of the resonator. The vibrating section of a lamella is that which extends beyond the metal rod. The playing end of each tongue is slightly bent downwards. The resonator is constructed from six slats of mubvamaropa wood glued together to form a trapezoidal-shaped box. A soundhole is drilled into the center of the soundboard, and on the backboard of the resonator are drilled two smaller holes (see detail photo).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer holds the sides of the soundboard in the palms of his hands, leaving his thumbs free to flex-and-release the tongues with a downward motion. The player’s right thumb works the nine right side lamellae, while the eight tongues on the left are sounded by the left thumb. The instrument is tuned approximately to an equal-tempered diatonic scale. Starting from the longest tongue at the center of the keyboard (colored blue) and alternating sides as you move outwards with the first move to the left, a G major scale starting from its third scale degree is produced. The range of the instrument is from B3 to D6. The index or middle finger of each hand can be used to open and close the holes on the backboard to create a vibrato or ‘wow’ effect.


The indigenous kalimba that served as the inspiration of the instrument discussed here is thought to have been invented in Zimbabwe around 1,000 years ago. There is archaeological evidence at Kumadzulo, in Zambia, of strips of iron resembling lamellae that have been indirectly dated to 500-700 CE. This early origin suggests that the kalimba may be the original form of lamellaphone in Zimbabwe. The Hugh Tracey version of the kalimba popularized this form of mbira and broadened the appeal of this instrument to the western audience sometime during the latter half of the 20th century.

Bibliographic Citations

Printed material contained in the box in which the instrument was purchased.

Ellert. H. 1984. The Material Culture of Zimbabwe. Harare: Longman Zimbabwe.

Sayce, Katherine, ed. 1987. s.v. "Music, Traditional." Encyclopedia Zimbabwe. Harare: Quest Publishing.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: South Africa

Nation: South Africa

Formation: Cosmopolitan (African)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

122.12 idiophone--lamellaphone (or plucked idiophone; lamellae, i.e. elastic plaques, fixed at one end, are flexed and then released to return to their position of rest) in board- or comb-form: the lamellae are attached to a board or cut out from a board like the teeth of a comb; with integral resonator

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: tongue - heteroglot

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: separate resonating space shared by multiple sonorous objects - built into instrument

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: flexing - direct

Sound exciting agent: fingertip/s, fingernail/s, finger-mounted pick/s

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: changing acoustical shape of resonator with fingerhole/s


7.3 in. length 5.2 in. greatest width 1.2 in. depth of resonator

Primary Materials



Hugh Tracey


treble, 17-keys

Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter