Virtual meets organic in Kevin Spear's kalimba

From Staff Reports
Black Mountain News USA TODAY NETWORK
A recognized master of the kalimba, Kevin Spears is certainly the African thumb piano's most visible prophet.

In Yoruba tradition, Eshu, a trickster figure and orisha of the crossroads, is a mediator between the human and the metaphysical. The music of kalimba master Kevin Spears is summoned at the crossroads of tradition and innovation, acoustic and electric, organic and virtual, earthy and spiritual.

A recognized master of the kalimba, Spears is certainly the African thumb piano's most visible prophet. Every Spears concert combines compositional and improvisational elements. A favorite performer at White Horse Black Mountain, Spears returns Friday, March 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 advance, $15 door.

At its most basic the kalimba, which goes by many names in African cultures, is simply a row of springy, tuned metal strips fastened to a wooden sound box and plucked with the thumbs, producing an almost xylophone-like tone. Spears’ virtuosic technique and wide-ranging musical vision are anything but simple.

He makes brilliant use of the instrument’s percussive nature by setting up grooves that tap into not only African roots but also funk, rock, gospel, jazz, R&B and hip hop. He also makes extensive use of real-time digital looping and effects to create one-man band textures that can range from delicate and ethereal to thunderous. Technological sleight of hand also allows Spears to make the kalimba sound like any instrument, real or imagined.

While it’s important to Spears to honor the African roots of his chosen music voice, his penchant for pushing the envelope has earned comparisons to innovators like Herbie Hancock, Jimi Hendrix, Les Paul and Charlie Parker.