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Video: kalimba player in Malawi
One thing that consistently amazes me while traveling in Africa is how the people are able to create musical instruments out of just about anything. Take the kora, for example. This West African stringed instrument is made from a gourd and fishing line.
Another popular instrument is the thumb piano, or "lamellophone" for all you musicologists out there. It's a small wooden plate or box with strips of metal of different lengths on it. These are plucked with the thumb to make different notes. A bit of scrounging in any African town can get you the parts for a thumb piano in less than an hour. Because they're light and easy to make, they are popular with the griots, Africa's wandering troubadours. They're also popular with kids because it's easy to learn the basics.
The thumb piano is called different names by different people, like kalimba or mbira. In Ethiopia, where I saw them being played, the instrument is called a tom. I bought one for my kid when he was five and he loves it. In fact, it was the first instrument he learned how to play. Unlike the recorder, which he's learning now in school, nobody taught him how to play the tom, he simply figured it out for himself, and that's much more fun.
Check out this video of a kalimba player in Malawi, who's so good a bird starts singing along with him! I'd love to know the words to his song.