Earth, Wind & Fire is an American R&B and funk band formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1969 by Verdine and Maurice White. Also known as EWF, the band has won six Grammy Awards and four American Music Awards. They have been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone has described them as “innovative, precise yet sensual, calculated yet galvanizing” and has also declared that the band “changed the sound of black pop”. In 1998, they were ranked at number 60 on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of Rock N’ Roll.
The band’s music contains elements of African, Latin American, funk, soul, pop and rock music, jazz and other genres. The band is known for the dynamic sound of their horn section, and the interplay between the contrasting vocals of Philip Bailey’s falsetto and Maurice White’s tenor. The kalimba (African thumb piano) is played on all of the band’s albums.
“That’s the Way of the World” is a song by the R&B band Earth, Wind & Fire and is also the title track of their album That’s the Way of the World. Written by Charles Stepney, Maurice White and Verdine White for Columbia Records, “That’s the Way of the World” was released as a single in many countries and reached number 12 and number 5 on the US Pop and Black Singles charts. It ranks #329 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
Various kinds of thumb pianos have existed in Africa for thousands of years. The keys were originally made of bamboo but over the years metal keys have been developed. The instrument is known by different names in different regions of Africa, including Mbira, Mbila, Mbira Huru, Mbira Njari, Mbira Nyunga, Marimba, Karimba, Kalimba, Likembe, Okeme, as well as marímbula (also called kalimba) in the Caribbean Islands.
The kalimba appears to have been invented twice in Africa: a wood or bamboo-tined instrument appeared on the west coast of Africa about 3000 years ago, and metal-tined lamellophones appeared in the Zambezi River valley around 1,300 years ago (Kubik, 1998). These metal-tined instruments traveled all across the continent and differentiated in their physical form and social uses as they spread. Kalimba-like instruments came to exist from the northern reaches of North Africa to the southern extent of the Kalahari desert, and from the east coast to the west coast, though many or most groups of people in Africa did not possess kalimbas. There were thousands of different tunings, different note layouts, and different instrument designs, but there is a compelling case from Andrew Tracey about a hypothetical tuning and note layout of the original metal-tined instrument from 1,300 years ago.
The Thumb Piano
The thumb piano was typically played while walking by traveling Griots, African poet bards who keep the history of the tribe or village, and to entertain people with songs, stories, poems, dances, etc. It was thought in ancient times that the thumb piano was able to project its sound into the heavens and could draw down spirits to the earth. Some of them were evil spirits so the people would stop playing the music until the spirits had departed from the area.
Many players and griot clans have their own idiosyncratic tunings. Most of the time the instrument is played solo and tuning is not as critical as when playing with other musicians. But the tuning can be changed by adjusting the length of the metal tines inward or outward. It is also often an important instrument to be played at religious ceremonies, weddings, and other social gatherings. It is a particularly common musical instrument of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
In the mid 1900’s the instrument was the basis for the development of the Kalimba, a westernized thumb piano designed and marketed by the ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey. This has become very important in popularizing the instrument outside of Africa. While the arrangement of notes on a thumb piano is considerably different from those on a piano or guitar, their arrangement is fairly intuitive, and it is considered to be an instrument easily learned. This quality is exploited in many elementary schools who use the thumb piano as an entry-level instrument. One of its indigenous names for this instrument can be translated as “The thing that makes walking easier” and as such it could be considered “the first walkman.”