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The "Thumb Piano" (ulimba)

Disturbance for Explorer's Ears

The ulimba is part of a group of musical instruments called the lamellophones which are common in traditional African music. There are lots of different styles of these instruments and their names are as numerous as their designs and tunings.

Several metal blades are fixed on a resonance body and are plucked with the fingers. Obsolete terms from the colonial era are the German words Zupfzungenspiel (blade-pluck play) and Daumen- or Kaffernklavier (thumb piano or Kaffir-piano).

The ulimba mostly has seven blades which are tuned to a fixed pitch. This seemed to lack in variety for untrained European ears. In 1908, the East-Africa researcher and ethnologist Karl Weule wrote:

"...the sound is mostly very rich and attractive; nevertheless, the repetition of the same tone sequence played for hours on end like it is practised by the Negro can madden the hard working researcher."

Today the ulimba and its numerous variants are used in world music, e.g. in Jazz.