Published Aug 20, 2007Over the past two years, classically trained pianist Laura Barrett has emerged as one of the most interesting musicians to call Toronto home. While shes gone on to join bands like the Hidden Cameras and Henri Fabergé and the Adorables on a full-time basis, it really is Barretts solo work that makes her such a compelling figure. Her devotion to the kalimba otherwise known as the "thumb piano, of African origin as her primary instrument certainly helps her stick out among other quirky indie rock contemporaries, yet its really Barretts fascinating and innovative approach to writing songs that bolsters her use of novel sounds.
As her 2005 EP
"Linguistics offers up a lot of technical information about sound and, if you have all that in your head when youre trying to write a phrase, it might stop you from trying something interesting, she explains. "At the same time, you can always explicitly break rules and know that youre breaking them. It may have been the rebel in Barrett that first sought out the kalimba, though, in some respects, her initial interactions with the ancient African device read like a comedy of errors. In January of 2005, Barrett was trolling eBay looking for midi controllers for some instrumental electronic music she was writing. Instead, she ended up bidding on a kalimba, and much to her delight, she won. "Somehow I must have changed some search terms or something and thumb pianos and kalimbas came up; I bought one on a whim basically, she laughs.
While it is now generally relegated to an option in any rinky-dink keyboards sound bank, an authentic kalimba is essentially a box with a metal bridge that suspends a series of metal tines, which are struck to create different notes. Traditionally, the kalimba is played with thumbs and fingers, though Barrett herself uses her thumbnails. As she strikes each tine, the box vibrates and, through trial and error, shes discovered that larger boxes generate a richer sound. "I tried to find out whether anybody had put any kind of sheet music or transcriptions of thumb piano music online but thats pretty difficult because its all transmitted person to person, through an oral tradition, Barrett explains. "So I had to come up with my own way of doing things.
After fiddling for a few months, Barrett saw a thread on the Toronto-centric message board, stillepost.ca, about a "Weird Al Yankovic tribute concert taking place. She dutifully prepared a cover of "Smells like Nirvana on kalimba, and was surprised by the warm reception she received. The event spurred a monthly theme night at a now-defunct Toronto bar called the Bagel, and Barrett was eager to participate again. "The next one was robots and I wrote Robot Ponies, she says, referring to one of her most endearing cult hits. "I couldnt think of an appropriate cover that made sense on the kalimba but I still wanted to play it and it just went from there.
Barrett has since purchased four more kalimbas to ease her experimentation with different tunings and has augmented her sound with midi compatible bass pedals. Shes quick to point out, however, that these additions have little to do with the inherent limitations of the kalimba. "There are a lot of ideas in my head from certain cognitive science or linguistics courses that Ive taken about combinatorial explosion and how it doesnt matter how few options you have because you can use them in an infinite number of ways, she explains. "So really, the size of the kalimba is a minor limit to the amount of creation thats possible using it. Its like a language; theres a limited number of words but with a few rules about how to talk and communicate with other people, you can make new sentences that have never existed.
"Part of the attraction of the kalimba, or any instrument thats not the piano, is that Im not already stuck in the patterns and routines of what my classical music instruction has taught me about what music sounds like or whats right and wrong, So, playing the kalimba has been a very exploratory journey for me. Its hard to do something for a while and not get caught in the patterns but Im trying.