Kalimba Family

Doing Music Differently     Our Instruments     Shoki Family     Bowus Family     Unspecialized     Work-In-Progress     Help-Us-Pay the-Rent
We began making thumb pianos after we’d already crafted some dozen shokis, and so right from the beginning we were braver and more willing to experiment.
The kalimbas we’d seen and which were our initial inspiration were used mostly as rhythm instruments. To make this possible they were equipped with jangling rings tied around their metal keys and small bells tied to their bodies, so that as you stroked the keys you could shake the whole instrument and accompany yourself with a chuck-a-chuck rhythm.
But since we were more  interested in using our instruments to play melodies, we decided to eliminate these distracting rattling noise makers.  Also for playing melodies we wanted more room for our fingers, which inspired us to fan out the keys rather than keeping them parallel.
These changes produced “Cocus”, which like the models we’d seen used half of a coconut shell for its resonator. We cold hammered out its keys from 1.6 mm high carbon steel.
But soon we realized we wanted a lower pitched kalimba which meant longer keys, and since larger coconuts were not available, we built “Boardus” which has a thick hardwood ( rose wood ) base, and keys made from 1.8 mm steel.
“Boardus” turned out to have a bell-like but rather small tone, therefore we were pleased to discover that if we played it while it was sitting on some resonating surface ( floor or table ), it produced a much louder and richer sound.

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Our Instruments****Shoki Family****Bowus Family****Our Recording****Microphone Placement
The Indian Music Scene****The Street Singer****Notation
****Slow, Low, And Varied
Home****Doing Music Differently****Unspecialized****Buy Our Music

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The music you’re hearing is played with two of the kalimba family instruments described on this page.  ( You can listen to the rest of the instrumentals and songs from our most recent CD by going to our Work In Progress Frozen mp3 Blog. )
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Quartus – Quartus :  A Boxus Quartus, Boardus Quartus duet
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We began making thumb pianos when we were living in India and after we’d already crafted some dozen shokis, so right from the beginning we were braver and more willing to experiment.
Cocusa
This meant even our very first kalimba turned out quite different from the one we’d heard a fellow expat using to play simple syncopated rhythms.   His instrument had jangling rings tied around its metal keys and small bells attached to its body, and as he stroked the keys he shook his instrument to accompany himself with a chuck-a-chuck rhythm

But we wanted to play melodies, and so when we designed our first kalimba we eliminated these distracting noise makers and fanned out the keys to give our thumbs more room to dance.

These changes lead to “Cocus”, which like the kalimba played by our friend used a half coconut shell for its resonator.  On a tiny Indian jewelry anvil we cold hammered out its keys from incredibly hard Indian 1.6 mm high carbon steel wire.

BoardusSince we loved playing our Cocus we soon started thinking about building a second and lower pitched kalimba.  But a few days of serious searching convinced us that in Varanasi we’d never find a coconut big enough to hold the longer keys needed to produce deeper tones.  So we hammered out a set of the necessary keys from 1.8 mm steel wire and assembled them instead on a thick rose wood board which we hoped would resonate and help them ring like bells.

This only somewhat worked because though “Boardus” did indeed turn out to have a clear bell-like tone, it wasn’t nearly loud enough to be useful as an instrument.  Fortunately by chance and before we’d had the time to get too bummed, we noticed it sounded bigger and richer if we played it while it was resting on our concrete floor.  What seemed to be happening was that the floor was acting as a resonator ! (*Somewhat surprisingly this worked even when we played it on our cotton futon which one would think should dampen the vibrations.  But this was in India and Indian futons are very thin…… )

Despite this discovery, at that time we were still thinking of a kalimba as something held in one’s hands and played with one’s thumbs.  So when we decided to build a third even lower pitched instrument we kept the same general hand-friendly shape but added a wooden sound box to make sure it wouldn’t have a volume problem like Boardus.  For it we hammered out even longer and thicker 2.1 mm keys.

BoxusAs for tuning, well we’d found that for every particular thickness of key there was a limited range of lengths over which they would behave.  That is below a certain length they wouldn’t sing, while if they were too long they would flop around too much to be playable.  ( That’s why whenever in the search for deeper tones we experimented with longer keys, we had to make them out of thicker stock. )  For our first two kalimbas we just pushed and pulled the keys in and out ( which was possible because our kalimba keys are held in place only by the pressure of a tapered wedge ) until that range was divided into 9 sweet sounding roughly even intervals.  But for this new instrument we wanted to try a more proper tuning and since going chromatic gave us more freedom than diatonic, that’s the way we went.

As we’d hoped its sound box did make “Boxus Chromaticus” louder, but it too sounded better when played on our futon ( in India we had no chairs and lived our whole life at floor level ), and naturally that became the main way we played it.  This meant we were no longer holding the instrument in our hands, and so soon rather than just using our thumbs we were stroking its keys with all of our fingers.  From there it wasn’t much of a leap to building a more keyboard like instrument with chromatically tuned keys arranged linearly by increasing pitch.  ( The standard alternating left-right kalimba tuning makes sense only for a hand-held instrument where one wants to be able to “walk” a scale with one’s thumbs. )

Basus Chromaticus*
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And so in three logical steps we’d evolved from the traditional thumb piano to our “Basus Chromaticus”, a beast so different from the traditional kalimba, it should properly be considered a totally new instrument.

We cold hammered out its keys from 2.5 mm high carbon steel rod and though we always played it on our futon, to maximize its sound we also gave it a rosewood resonating sound box.

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Though Basus Chromaticus was the last member of our kalimba family to be built while we were living in India ( Doing Music Differently ), even back then we’d already started dreaming of an instrument with linearly arranged keys separated by only a quartertone.

In part this must have been because at that point we were absolutely fascinated by Indian classical music which actually incorporates microtones into its official theory.  ( The Indian Music Scene )

Four WoodsBut it was not until the winter of 2004 that we got around to building such a beast.  Since by then we were living in the United States and had already built the second of our Bowus Family instruments using hardwood and hardwood plywood, we decided to go with the same sort of frame and skin technique for our first quartertone kalimba.

But first, to test our construction method and because we wanted a second linearly arranged chromatically tuned kalimba, we built “Four Woods” with 24 keys hammered out of 2.1 mm Indian steel.  ( Its poetic name derives from the four different woods used for its construction, maple for the wedge, alder for the frame, mahogany for the soundboard and a hardwood plywood skin. )
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Boxus QuartusOnly after this did we feel ready to build “Boxus Quartus”, a two-octave quartertone kalimba with 48 keys hammered out of  2.5 mm Indian steel.

To tune it we first tuned every other key to a chromatic (half-tone) scale and then did our best to put the other keys half-way between them.  But it’s tricky hearing such small intervals, and so certainly some of the splits are more like 55-45 than 50-50.

However having the tuning slightly irregular doesn’t bother us. Indeed we prefer it, even as we prefer walking a rough mountain trail to striding over perfectly flat and uniform city pavement.  (*Notation )

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As for how we’ve gone about creating quartertone music, well mostly we’ve just listened carefully while letting our fingers dance over the keys of our quartertone kalimbas.  This way instead of sweating to invent quartertone music, instead of struggling to elaborate a new quartertone music theory, we’ve faced only the exciting, easy, and pleasant task of discovering quartertone music.  ( Our Instruments )

When we recorded Sweet Heresy, our second CD, we still had only our first quartertone kalimba, so the kalimba duet for that CD was played with Basus Chromaticus and  Four Woods, but for Work In Progress we very much wanted a quartertone kalimba duet.  So in 2008 we finally made the time to finish our second quartertone kalimba.  ( We’d hammered out its keys 3 years earlier, but then put them aside while to pay the bills we taught ourselves to be commercial Japanese to English translators.  There’s more about this painful but fruitful interlude on our Doing Music Differently page. )

To make our second quartertone kalimba sound distinctly different from Boxus Quartus, we gave it a soundboard rather than a resonating air chamber, and since we also wanted a higher pitched instrument we used the same thin 1.8 mm Indian steel we’d used for Boardus.  We knew this meant that like Boardus it probably wouldn’t be very loud, but we weren’t worried because we planned to only play our new quartertone kalimba amplified.

Boardus Quartus MikingThe result was “Boardus Quartus”, an instrument with a small but very clear bell-like tone and a lovely feather-light touch.

However amplifying Boardus Quartus was at first a bit trickier than we’d expected, since played loudly its sound board sustains its ring for many seconds and turns its amplified sound into a kind of roar.  Fortunately once we got familiar with the high and low pass filters available with our new recording setup ( Our Recording ), taming this out of control resonance turned out to be pretty straightforward.

While once we’d figured out that putting the noses of our dynamic microphones in direct contact with our instruments in effect turned them into high quality pickups ( Microphone Placement ), it became clear that  the recorded sound of Boardus Quartus was if anything more powerful than that of its older brother.  Which perhaps shouldn’t have surprised us, since instruments designed to be played amplified ( like electric guitars ) are often built with solid bodies rather than hollow sound boxes.
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Two Octaves Is Enough……
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None of our kalimba family instruments has more than a two octave range, but this seems to be more than enough to give us full expressiveness.

In fact we can’t help but suspect that the hunger of most conventional keyboard players for more and more keys spanning more and more octaves, is just another aspect of the materialism which in the name of “more is better” has consistently diminished conventional music and the rest of our deeply mediocre modern life.  ( Slow, Low, And Varied )

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Building The Beasts……
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Like the two most recent members of our bowus family, Boxus Quartus was built with a hardwood plywood skin clamped and glued onto a hardwood frame.

It’s basically the same technique we’ve used to build much of our furniture, except that the joints of our instruments are just clamped and glued while those of our furniture are glue nailed / glue screwed.  And of course our platforms, beds, wardrobes, and shelves use cheap thick softwood for their frames and thick construction grade plywood for their skins.

Still when you see our instruments and our furniture next to each other, it’s obvious that they’re cousin-brothers.  (*Unspecialized )

The photos below show successive stages of putting together and gluing Boxus Quartus.  Thankfully assembling Boardus Quartus was a much more straightforward bit of work.

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Our Instruments***Shoki Family***Bowus Family****Our Recording****Microphone Placement
The Indian Music Scene****The Street Singer****Notation
****Slow, Low, And Varied
Home****Doing Music Differently****Unspecialized****Buy Our Music

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© 2014 Untravelled Path