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Posted Sep 5, 2012, 3:22 pm
It will be a meeting of two masters featuring an ancient African musical instrument.
The kalimba, aka “African thumb piano,” is nominally a simple folk instrument. However, in the hands of a master, it’s rounded acoustic tones have exceptional range and beauty. Add in electronic effects and its melodies become otherworldly.
Saturday, Tucson’s Mark Holdaway, an impassioned advocate and highly skilled player of the kalimba, will host Kevin “KalimbaMan” Spears, acknowledged as one the world’s best players of the instrument, for a concert featuring virtuoso skills, improvisation and one-of-a-kind music. This will be Spear’s first appearance in Tucson.
Tucson’s Baba Marimba, a six-piece world music band, will also perform in the concert/dance party at ZUZI! Theater.
“We’ve been talking about working together for about five years,” Holdaway says, “and now it’s finally happening. ZUZI! has a huge stage, so we’ll set up the band on half of it and half of it will be available to anyone who wants to dance shoes off.”
Kevin Spears was only 10 when he began playing the kalimba, inspired by Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, who sometimes played the instrument on recordings and in concert.
“I started playing percussion at four or five years old, playing my mom’s pots and pans around the house,” Spears said in a phone interview.
“When I was nine, my sister was a huge fan of Earth, Wind and Fire. She had an album and I pulled out the album sleeve and saw these crazy looking instruments. I listened to the album and was just fascinated by the sound of the kalimba. I begged my mom to buy me one for Christmas and I’ve been playing it ever since. At some point, it became medicine for my own soul,” he said.
Although familiar with the traditional African uses of the instrument, Spears incorporates influences including Herbie Hancock to Jimi Hendrix.
“My calling has been to build upon what has been done traditionally in Africa, to respect that and build upon it on my own individual path with the instrument. My experiences on kalimba have been through jazz, rock, R&B, and world music like jujuka and flamenco.”
Mark Holdaway – A kalimba’s best friend
Tucson’s own kalimba master, Mark Holdaway, plays electric guitar and kalimba in Baba Marimba. Holdaway is widely respected not only for his playing skills, but also for his promotion of the instrument. A former astrophysicist, Holdaway started Kalimba Magic here in 2005 to help popularize the instrument that he loves, selling both affordable starter and top quality collectable instruments, creating instructional materials and performing. He has written articles and given lectures about the origins and evolution of the kalimba over its 1,000-year history.
According to Spears, “I think the kalimba world would be very different without Mark. We owe a lot to him for venturing out and creating Kalimba Magic. It really has become the headquarters around the world for all things new.”
Kalimba Magic’s YouTube channel has had more than 2 million views, with Holdaway’s “First Look Inside” alone played more than 500,000 times.
Holdaway is also well known on the local folk music scene. His instrumental skills have been showcased in multiple performances at the annual Tucson Folk Festival, both with his bands and unselfishly backing other musicians. Holdaway has performed at every festival since 1997.
Baba Marimba – the band and the plan
Baba Marimba was formed in 2010. Their evolving style emphasizes danceable tempos, with elements of Afro-Cuban, tango, mamba, pop and jazz. In concert, they rotate and shift instrument constantly to create new textures and rhythms. They are planning their first CD release party for later this month.
The band includes Holdaway, Robert “Swami” Peizer (percussion, marimba, kalimba), Juan Steward Mortimer (marimba, percussion), Heidi Wilson (saxophone, marimba), Mike Ankomeus (trumpet, ney, marimba) and Mike Holloway (drums). The band features both alto and baritone marimbas.
“The thing I love most about playing with Baba Marimba is the way everyone dances to our music,” Holdaway said. “Almost everything we do has the dancers in mind. Having two or three drummers playing at a time, and having the bass line spelled out on baritone marimba, make the songs hard not to dance to.”