Melodies of grief: What I learnt about myself by playing the kalimba

As I learned to play the African musical instrument, emotions I had long hidden away floated to the surface

Published : 27 March 2024, 01:43 PM
Updated : 27 March 2024, 01:43 PM

I’ve always been a quiet person. I never had the easiest time with words or people. The skies were the only ones who knew my stories.
I often thought that those who could express themselves without words were lucky.

I longed to be able to do that. To find an instrument that could convey my feelings. Something that could carry a melody, but was easy to hide. I wanted a way to enjoy playing music without bothering other people.
That’s when I first learned about the kalimba.

The kalimba is a modern interpretation of an African instrument, traditional to the Shona people of Zimbabwe. It consists of a wooden board attached to staggered metal tines. You hold it in your hands and pluck at the prongs with your fingers and thumbs.

I thought it was perfect for me – small, unassuming, with a soft, pleasant sound.

What I didn’t expect was my emotional reaction to playing it.

The first song I learned was the American country standard ‘You Are My Sunshine’. My friends and I thought it was a pretty, if simple, song.

But, when I got to the part where the singer says, “I dreamed I held you in my arms, but when I woke, dear, I was mistaken,” I felt tears welling up.

In that instant, I was thinking of Mickey.

Mickey was my pet. He died when he was only four months old. I still craved the touch of his little paws. Playing the song stirred my memories of holding him.

Since his death, I had locked that sadness away, never confronting it. But, as I plucked at my kalimba, it bubbled up inside me, demanding to be acknowledged.

For the first time, instead of turning away, I confronted it. And the outcome of that confrontation was the music. It felt cathartic.

I then turned to other songs that had resonated with me, like ‘Runaway’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Through the kalimba I explored the emotional complexity of lines like, "And I was running far away; would I run off the world someday?" and "Mama, I don't want to die; I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all."

As the instrument resonated in my hand, I looked into the depths of my grief. I saw the pain that had lingered through a thousand tiny cuts and deep, wounding gashes. Places that scar tissue had covered, but not healed. I felt the demands they had made on me through the years and acknowledged that hurt.

The music of the kalimba comforted me, but it also pushed me to grow and become stronger.

Recently, I played the song ‘500 Miles’. One line stuck with me - "Lord, I can't go back home this way." At that moment I realised that this was only the start of the journey. There were more emotions to uncover and truths to find.

Through the simple act of playing the kalimba, I’ve discovered the truth of the old idea that music can illuminate the darkest corners of our souls.
Now, alongside the skies, the kalimba has started to hear all my stories. But they are still a bit different. The skies know all the questions I have asked them throughout my life. The kalimba has started unpacking the answers.

Sometimes, though, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes my exploration hits a spot that is too sharp and raw. The last song I tried to play was ‘Time in a Bottle’. It completely eluded me. Sometimes I don’t even want to look at the kalimba.

There is still a long way to go on my emotional journey. For now, I’m taking a rest stop. But, when I’m ready, I know the kalimba will be there to guide me along the way.   

This article is part of Stripe,'s special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.