We began making thumb pianos in 1995 towards the end of our 10 years in India.
Since at that point we’d already crafted some dozen bamboo flutes, right from the beginning we were braver and more willing to experiment. So even our very first kalimba turned out quite different from our inspiration and model, the one on which we’d heard a fellow expat 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 it to accompany himself with a chuck-a-chuck rhythm.
But because we wanted to play melodies, 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. (It’s supposed to be impossible to cold hammer high carbon steel, but except for a few badly cracked ones we couldn’t save by extensive filing, ours turned out just fine.)
We loved playing Cocus and as we’ve always been partial to low pitched sounds we immediately started thinking about building a second larger lower pitched kalimba. However we reluctantly gave up on the idea of using a coconut shell for this instrument once we realized in Varanasi we’d never find one big enough to hold the longer keys needed to produce deeper tones. Instead after hammering out a set of longer thicker 1.8 mm steel keys we assembled them on a thick rosewood board.
“Boardus” turned out to have a clear ringing tone, but with only a board for a resonator it still wasn’t loud enough to be useful as an instrument. Fortunately before wasting too much time being bummed, we noticed it had a much bigger and richer sound if we played it while it was resting on our concrete floor. Clearly the floor was acting as a resonator, how cool! (Surprisingly this worked even when we played it on our cotton futon which one would think should dampen the vibrations. Of course Indian futons are very thin…)
Despite this discovery, at that time we were still thinking of a kalimba primarily as something held in one’s hands and played with one’s thumbs. So when we made a third even lower pitched instrument we kept the same general hand-friendly shape but added a wooden sound box to be sure it would be louder than Boardus. For it we hammered out still longer and thicker 2.1 mm keys.
For this new instrument we wanted to try some more conventional tuning, and because it gave us greater freedom we chose to go chromatic rather than diatonic. This was a big change from our first two kalimbas where we’d just pushed and pulled their keys in and out (which is possible because our keys are held in place only by the pressure of a tapered wood wedge) until their range was divided into 9 sweet sounding intervals. (For each particular thickness of key, if it’s too short it won’t sing and if it’s too long it will flop around too much to be playable. That’s why when in search of deeper tones we experimented with longer keys, we had to make them out of thicker stock.)
Though its hollow resonator did indeed make “Boxus Chromaticus” louder, since laying it on our futon further improved its sound, that’s the way we played it. Pretty soon since we were no longer holding the instrument in our hands, instead of using only our thumbs we were stroking its keys with all 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.)
And so in four 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 still gave it a rosewood resonating sound box.
Basus Chromaticus was the last member of our kalimba family born while we were living in India, but even back then we’d already started thinking of a larger instrument with linearly arranged keys separated by only a quartertone.
In part this must have been because we were immersed in and absolutely fascinated by Indian classical music which claims to incorporate microtones into its official theory and practice.
But not until the winter of 2004 did we get around to realizing this dream.
Since by then we were living in the United States and had already put together the second of our Bowus Family instruments from hardwood and hardwood plywood, we decided to go with the same sort of frame and skin construction for our first quartertone kalimba.
However as a trial run and because we wanted a second keyboard style chromatically tuned kalimba, first we built “Four Woods”, an instrument with 24 keys hammered out of 2.1 mm Indian steel. (Its name derives from the four different woods used to build it, maple for the wedge, alder for the frame, mahogany for the soundboard and hardwood plywood for the skin.)
Only after this did we feel ready to tackle “Boxus Quartus”, a two-octave quartertone monster 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 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.
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.
When we recorded Sweet Heresy, our second CD, since we still had only one quartertone kalimba the kalimba duet on it was between our two chromatic kalimbas, Basus Chromaticus and Four Woods. But for Work In Progress, our most recent CD, we very much wanted a quartertone kalimba duet, so in 2008 we made the time to finish a second quartertone kalimba. Its keys had been ready 3 years earlier, but then we had to put them aside while to pay the bills we taught ourselves to be commercial Japanese to English translators.
To make sure this second quartertone kalimba had a distinctly different sound from Boxus Quartus, we built it with an oak soundboard rather than a resonating air chamber. Because we also wanted it to be higher pitched, we made its keys from the same thin 1.8 mm Indian steel we’d used for Boardus, our second kalimba. We knew this meant like our first Boardus it wouldn’t be very loud, but we weren’t worried as we planned to only play this new quartertone kalimba amplified.
The 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 easier said than done, since its ring was loud and long lasting enough to turn its amplified sound into a kind of roar. Fortunately once we learned to use the high and low pass filters available with our new recording setup, taming this out of control resonance was straightforward.
From there on it was clear sailing, and in fact after we’d discovered putting the noses of our dynamic microphones in direct contact with our instruments in effect turned them into high quality pickups, it became clear the recorded sound of Boardus Quartus was if anything more powerful than that of its older brother. Which 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.
Two Octaves Is Enough….
None of our kalimba family instruments has more than a two octave range, but this seems to be enough.
In fact we can’t help but suspect that the hunger of many 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.
Building the Beasts
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 clamped and glued while those of our furniture are glue nailed or 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.
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.