The Kalimba was originally known as the mbira. It originated in Africa and was commonly used as a solo instrument, however it soon became known for its use amongst singers, musicians and within dance routines. Although it was used in Africa for centuries, it only became known to the Western world in the 1920s.
It was discovered by a man named Hugh Tracey in Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe), who worked with his brother on a tobacco farm within the region. Working on the farm by day, he soon became fascinated by local music and how important it was amongst the local culture.
His interest in this culture led Hugh to meet many popular composers at the time such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, who soon persuaded him to begin studying African music in depth. Through his studies, Hugh eventually created the International Library of African Music which focused a great deal on the mbira.
In the early 1960s, Hugh made the decision to alter the mbira to create what is now known as the Kalimba, translated as ‘little music’. He registered the Kalimba as his own trademark and the instrument quickly became popular throughout the Western world.
It adapted very well to many Western music types throughout the 1960s and was very easy for the performer to play whilst singing or as part of a band. The name Kalimba was also adopted throughout much of Africa, however, the traditional name mbira is still used throughout Zimbabwe.
The name has also been adapted in several different regions and is known as the ikembe in Rwanda, likembe in the Congo, thumb piano in Western Regions and less commonly the sansa, sanza marimbula and marimba. Although the names are different, the instrument remains fundamentally the same and is very popular within many regions throughout Africa.