My first encounter with a kalimba, the African instrument (also known as a “thumb piano” or, more properly, mbira) was when I read the album credits for Space Oddity in my youth and learned that David Bowie played a kalimba on the title track, Bowie’s first American breakout hit (a.k.a., “Major Tom”). You can hear the kalimba’s shimmering effect in the intro and into the first verse (Bowie, no doubt, getting a strong vibrato effect by rapidly moving his finger on/off the instrument’s sound hole).
Hmm, I wondered – has any popular musical artist ever decided to write a song that celebrates or honors the kalimba itself? As it turns out, yes: Earth Wind & Fire’s “Kalimba Story” from 1974’s Open Our Eyes, the group’s fifth album – and third for Columbia, since switching from Warner Brothers:
How refreshing to see the kalimba makes its first appearance a mere 2 seconds into the song and then proceeds to kick out the jams a little further ways in. Interesting to see this song released as the A-side of a 45 (#6 R&B, #55 Pop), the second of three singles from that album.
Seven years later, Earth Wind & Fire would issue “Kalimba Tree” on 1981 album, Raise! – an interesting melange of deep analog synthesizer, soprano sax, and vocal chants with gentle mbira embellishments.
A piece about the mbira wouldn’t be complete if I failed to mention the work of Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, whose music not only embraced the instrument from the outset but also featured electric guitar lines that beautifully emulate a master mbira musician.
Rolf Harris Introduces the Stylophone to the Masses
Right after I posted this piece, I was reviewing the musician credits for the Space Oddity album and was struck by the fact that, in addition to the kalimba, David Bowie also played a stylophone during the recording sessions. A few years ago I was introduced to this monophonic electronic keyboard – that one plays with a metal stylus – when I was graciously given one by close friends. I had assumed all this time that the stylophone was a relatively recent invention, but seeing the instrument credited on a 1969 recording, of course, set me to wondering: when did the stylophone enter the realm of popular music?
As it turns out, Rolf Harris – the Australian entertainer probably best known for his hits, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” and the Aboriginal-inspired, “Sun Arise” (produced by George Martin and probably the first time most Americans heard a didgeridoo) – is likely responsible for unveiling the stylophone to European audiences for the first time, as this documentary clip reveals:
Rolf Harris demonstrates the electronic instrument using a song from “the hit parade” – John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” first covered by Glen Campbell in 1967 – on a program that may have originally been broadcast on BBC in September, 1968.
This film clip, thankfully, answers the question – on which song did Bowie use the stylophone? Answer: the album’s title track (at around the 2:37 mark) during the instrumental bridge immediately following Bowie’s strummed acoustic guitar riff.