“Kalimba Story”: Thumb Piano Pop

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:

“Kalimba Story”     Earth, Wind & Fire     1974

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.

“Hanzvadzi”     Thomas Mapfumo     1993

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 – by friends who graciously bestowed one upon me.  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.

3 thoughts on ““Kalimba Story”: Thumb Piano Pop

    • Hello Alison,
      Thank you for checking my website! I was smitten by “Space Oddity” as a youngster, and at one time we had a kalimba (thumb piano) around the house. I remember checking out the liner notes then and being surprised to see a kalimba listed, so I listened again carefully and – sure enough – you can hear the shimmering notes of a thumb piano in the opening chords before the vocal. On each chord in the intro, you can hear Bowie gently strike a note and produce a shimmering effect by quickly and repeatedly covering/uncovering the sound hole. Here is a link to the musician credits for Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ LP:
      https://www.discogs.com/David-Bowie-Space-Oddity/release/777704

      I also wanted to include a YouTube audio link for a sound demonstration although – and this is kinda freaking me out – every mix of “Space Oddity” that I’m running into has a different mix on the intro! This is really strange – I can’t find any mixes that sound like the original 45 mix that I’ve heard dozens of times. These newly-mixed versions have a starker, shorter intro – can barely hear the kalimba part that precedes the stylophone (which comes in at the vocal). Anyway, it’s listed in the credits, and I swear you can hear the thumb piano on the original mix (which Mr. Bowie, perhaps, does not want us to hear on YouTube — possibly because the intro is a long fade-in recorded on analog equipment that produces an unacceptable amount of ‘tape hiss’ today in our more pristine digital age).

      Cheers!

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