AMI Blog


I had a singing student some years ago who had quite the most beautiful voice. It was warm and rich, and she had a fantastic range. She was mad about singing and hoped to make it her career. There was one problem. She would frequently sing way out of tune. I was pretty sure this was to do with confidence, but we tried many things to try to address the problem, but never actually resolved it. Tuning is a big issue but what we think of as ‘in’ or ‘out of’ tune is completely dependent on the musical soundscape that we grow up with. The now ubiquitous major scale is, in fact, out of tune with natural harmonics. This is because of equal temperament. Back in the 17th century, the natural harmonics on which the major scale is based were sort of ‘ironed out’ to make it possible for a single instrument to play any key. Essentially, the octave was divided equally into 12 semitones. This meant most of the tones in the scale were slightly altered, leaving no ‘natural’ intervals (That is, conforming to the harmonic series). That was so long ago that the Western world has had several centuries to acclimatise to the sound of equal temperament. For millions of people, the tempered scale sounds ‘in tune’.  

As long as people have moved around the world, instruments and musical styles have travelled with them. And new instruments, sounds, and musical ideas are then adopted and individualised by communities. African guitar styles are a fantastic example of African musical innovation. Check out this link for a nice example from Congo. Guitars, of course, can be tuned to the player’s preferred scale. Other instruments like keyboards and saxophones aren’t so easy to retune. Along with recordings of music from Europe and America, equal temperament tuning has slowly but surely brought Western tunings to Africa, which means we hear fewer and fewer alternate tunings. The slow take over by Western tuning has sped up in the last century because of recording technology, radio, television, and now, of course, the internet.

If you grow up with Western equal temperament ringing in your ears, it provides the baseline of acceptable tuning. Anything outside of it is ‘out of tune’. In the same way, if you grow up with an alternate scale – perhaps one that include microtones, or is based on evenly spaced intervals – that’s what your baseline is. Perhaps it’s a matter of one musician’s tuning is another musician’s poison. Either way, the rightness and wrongness of tuning can be relative.

That’s a nice thought, but it did not help my singing student, who, needless to say, did not end up with a singing career. Perhaps it’s best to say, some traditions are more particular about tuning than others. In some contexts discrepancies in tuning are ok, but in others very little discrepancy is tolerated.

So why am I talking about tuning? AMI makes marimba sets with two basic tunings  – Standard C (the even tempered major scale), and E Flat. The E Flat sets, like the Standard C sets, have an extra note in the scale – (a raised 4th). The 4th note in E Flat is A Flat – so if you raise it, you get A natural. This gives you the key of B Flat. If you’re still reading and haven’t fallen asleep, well done. But there’s more to it because the AMI E flat sets are not tuned to the equal tempered scale.

Why do you need E Flat sets, and where does the tuning come from? Here we need a history lesson from Andrew Tracey who was involved when African marimbas were first developed at Kwanongoma College in the 1960s. He talks about Kurt Huweiler, who got involved in marimba manufacture in Zimbabwe before moving to Umtata.

Kurt Huwiler moved to Umtata, South Africa in the early 1980s and set up a marimba factory at Ikhwezi Lokusa School for the Catholic Church. Father Dave Dargie (later Prof Dargie of Fort Hare University) set about introducing the instruments and creating new liturgical music for marimba in Catholic churches and youth clubs, at first among Xhosa speakers in the Cape Province, and later country-wide. At the beginning he and I worked out a suitable tuning for use by Xhosa speakers, closely based on the two harmonic series, a whole tone apart, as used in Xhosa music. (The Zimbabwean marimba, on the other hand, was tuned at first to something resembling a mbira scale, with the semitones of a western scale enlarged and the whole tones decreased. Marimbas in Zimbabwe are now tuned to the tempered western scale.) Among the changes Dave Dargie made was to tune the marimbas in E Flat, as against the C tuning used in Zimbabwe, because this is a much better general-purpose singing key. The new ‘Xhosa-fied’ marimba sets were first introduced into Catholic youth clubs in Cape Town, and continue to be the choice of some schools, churches and clubs that use them to accompany singing. Marimbas in church groups have been the inspiration of many now famous musicians – including Dizu Plaatjies, who used them in his band ‘Amampondo’, from Langa, Cape Town (Andrew Tracey).

The ‘suitable tuning’ that Andrew mentions was based on the scale that Xhosa singers – particularly church congregations – were using. It was their ‘in tune’ scale. The two keys on those Umtata-made marimbas, B Flat and E Flat are comfortable for singers in terms of pitch, and the tuning conformed to the scale that was in the ears of the community. And it has stuck. The factory at Ihwezi Lokusa Schoolbecame ‘Power Marimbas’, based in Grahamstown, in the 1990s, and AMI took over Power Marimbas in 2000. AMI has customers who prefer E Flat sets – many are church congregations, but some are not. They bring a sound that shifts your paradigm (if you are an equal temperament listener) because they have a unique sound – embedded in their scale, which has roots in real people making real music. They are wonderfully resistant in a musical world where equal temperament is bulldozing indigenous scales into oblivion.