Right from 1991 when we were living in India and made our first instruments, they were tools for stopping thought, getting loose, and getting lost.
And that’s what they still are.
They’ve grown bigger and more sophisticated, sometimes we’ve even played them amplified, but with them we’re still looking for that sweet spot in time, for ecstasy, for that door into another cleaner and more peaceful world.
Though their tones are luscious rich with ring that cuts deep into a listener’s body, they’re not well disciplined, not suitable for playing anything that’s written down.
They’re our wild magic partners without whom we never could have created our innocent elegant music.
We’ve only done the work of building them because we’ve wanted them to play. We’ve never thought of them as objects to sell.
They’ve grown in parallel with our music like siblings in the same family.
By allowing us to weave music from never before heard sounds, they’ve guaranteed we’d produce music that’s very different.
And since our instruments are not engineered to produce the official notes of any scale, since their individual tones are funky with strange harmonics and differ in more than pitch, thinking clearly is not the smart way to play them. Even with determined practice, they can not be dominated, still they will not behave.
We’ve had to learn which sounds they want to sing, let them teach us how they want to be played. They’ve put us in a position to discover our new music, a much easier task than inventing it.
Despite centuries of hard work by dedicated designers, even conventional modern instruments don’t put out completely well behaved and regular sounds. String and brass instruments have wolf notes, while the lowest notes of a piano are only somewhat there.
Sadly students of such instruments are not encouraged to explore these interesting irregularities, instead they’re strictly disciplined to avoid them.
Consider for example the fate of someone learning to play the cello, a totally awesome instrument capable of making an astonishing range of different sounds. But pretty quickly frowns and harsh comments from their teacher make it quite clear most of these are absolutely forbidden.
So they’re trained to never play sounds that fall between the official notes, to be embarrassed by squeaks, to avoid whisper tones, and to produce a consistently loud round sound.
Which is perfectly reasonable and correct if one’s object is to play Bach, but if one’s looking for musical newness this sort of training is counter productive, it merely locks the student into a mental straightjacket.
By the time someone has become proficient on the cello, they’ve been so brutalized they’re afraid to play 90% of the sounds their instrument can make.
Our instruments’ rich complex sounds force us to listen very carefully. More interesting than clean simple notes, they must be grokked in fullness. Separated by intervals smaller than a half note, smaller even than a quarter note, to make music with them, listening must take the place of memory, feeling must take the place of thought.
Still the pieces we play with them have so much deep structure, that despite their lack of rigid repetition when we sing on top of them it all fits together. The music supports the lyrics, the lyrics make the music more powerful.
Also building our own instruments has further convinced us an unspecialized approach to being creative works. When we shift back to playing them, our music has always grown.
It makes simple good sense. If we live music more completely, if we make instruments not just play them, bigger music is a natural result.
The simple bamboo flutes of our Shoki Family (versions of the traditional Japanese shakuhachi) introduced us to the world of microtones. Though they’re “tuned” by the spacing, size, and shape of their finger holes, partial closings and mouth-tongue-breath control allow one to slide smoothly among their notes, to produce a whole universe of strange tones.
This combined with the way shokis can whisper, blast, quiver, and twist notes in intoxicating ways, makes them well suited for letting go, for playing magic music.
This is truer of our shokis than traditional shakuhachis. For one thing since their insides are not as smooth, their tone is more difficult to control and often we have no choice but to ride their wildness.
Also since even standard shakuhachis are more than a bit skittish, to make them produce the “correct” notes they’re almost always played loudly. This puts the shakuhachi student in the same sort of mental straightjacket as the fledgling cellist, he too is trained to avoid all sorts of interesting sounds his instrument would be happy to make. In particular, for him its soft sounds are all off limits.
But since we don’t use our flutes to play set tunes, we’ve been free to play them quietly. And what we’ve found is their delicate uncontrollable soft tones, the fascinating little sounds they sing when we’re not struggling to dominate them, are more magical than anything in the pretty but limited “Cry of the Distant Deer”, the tune most often used to showcase traditional shakuhachi style.
As we point out on our Music and Magic page, though loud music can have a magical transporting effect, it’s a crude and low form of magic akin to the feeling one gets from being part of a powerful mob.
Since 1995 when we started building our Kalimba Family instruments, they’ve evolved to the point where they’re only distantly related to the African thumb pianos which were their ancestors and original inspiration.
This became obvious in 1998 when just before we left our neo-ancient life in India we finished “Basus Chromaticus”, the first of our keyboard style kalimbas, an instrument 26 inches wide with 24 linearly arranged keys tuned a half note apart. Since then we’ve gone on to build a second such chromatically tuned kalimba, and two 37 inch wide instruments each of which has 48 linearly arranged keys tuned roughly a quartertone apart.
When we built “Basus Chromaticus”, we knew of nothing else even remotely like it. Even later that year when we were back in the States and could check out kalimbas on the web, we found nothing comparable, though we did see some handheld chromatically tuned instruments.
However by 2007 keyboard style kalimbas started popping up on Google, and now they come in many different sizes and shapes. But one thing these instruments seem to have in common is they’re all designed with something analogous to a piano’s arrangement of white and black keys.
And while this may make them more suitable for playing conventional music, we still doubt they can do it as well as other already existing instruments. For Pop performers who dance and play at the same time, a handheld kalimba with a wireless pickup would be better. While the complicated fingerings required by Classical music must be more difficult on thin metal kalimba keys than on the wide flat keys of any other type of keyboard.
As for actually making the beasts, since setting up kalimba keys in a way which mimics the arrangement of piano keys is tricky, trying to do so seems inevitably to result in clunky Rube Goldberg like instruments.
Beyond giving one bragging rights we can’t quite see the point of complicated visually impressive new instruments which fail to lead to new and differently beautiful music. But perhaps we just don’t get it, since there seem to be quite a few boutique operations dedicated to doing precisely that, even as there’re industries providing expensive recording equipment for people who almost never record, high-end cameras for people who take very few pictures, 6-burner stainless steel industrial stoves for people who seldom cook, and hiking boots for people who rarely walk on dirt.
Fortunately since we were not interested in playing conventional music, we were free to use 12-tone tuning for our chromatic keyboard style kalimbas, leading to a simple elegant arrangement of keys which both tickled our design sense and was easy to extend to quartertone instruments.
This was important because to our taste our 12-tone chromatic kalimbas still had way too much built in conventional music theory. Now that we have two quartertone instruments, they’re the only ones we play.
This makes the development of our Kalimba Family sound clearly thought out and deliberate. But it would be more accurate to say when we started making them we didn’t know where we were going, and over time the instruments themselves, the music we played on them, and our recording and miking techniques all influenced each other and evolved in parallel. As has often happened, the process of doing something taught us how it should be done.
In any case, keyboard style kalimbas are to our knowledge the only keyboards where the sound is made by striking something directly with one’s fingertips.
More commonly keyboard sound is produced indirectly by something that hits or plucks a string, by a hammer that strikes a piece of wood or metal, or by dancing electrons. Of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing it these ways, but we were pleased to discover making the sound by directly hitting something with our fingertips, does give one particularly sensitive and sensual control of both tone quality and volume.
Also since our keys are individually hammered out from high carbon steel rod (not cut from uniform thickness sheet steel ), each has its own funky tone quality, and so the tuning of our keyboard kalimbas is less uniform and regular than that of any conventional more machine-like keyboard. Add to this that each of these non standardized keys has a very different “touch”, and playing one of our keyboard kalimbas becomes more like walking over a mountain trail than marching along a perfectly flat and regular city sidewalk.
…. Which both better suits our personalities and is far more useful for creating spell-weaving thought-stopping music.
We developed our Bowus Family because we wanted low pitched fretless bowable instruments we could play while seated cross legged.
“Bass bowus”, the most recently completed of these instruments, is eight feet long and has only a single string.
Since we deliberately keep the thick gut strings of our Bowus instruments very loose, we can’t even imagine dominating them. More than any of our other instruments, we must make music with the tones they want to sing.
They sound pretty only when we stop our thoughts, listen very carefully, and give our intuition full freedom… then they’re awesome.
They’re useless for accurately playing a series of fast official notes, but when our bowing’s on, their ever shifting ring hangs rich and full forever.
On a good day they’re amazing fun to play. They may be the most magic of our instruments.
….with our own hands
When we say we make these instruments, we mean we actually build them with our own hands.
The next two pictures show us hammering out quartus keys in our Taos driveway and filing them in our little portal. The metal we’re working is very hard high carbon steel, which probably explains why we both look somewhat stressed out. (It’s supposed to be impossible to cold hammer high carbon steel, but when we first did it we didn’t know it couldn’t be done, and so our keys have turned out just fine…..)