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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Local man plays, teaches African 'thumb piano' instrument

By plucking the metal keys of a foot-long piano, guest lecturer Aaron Spalding brought more than a thousand years of African tradition to life.

Spalding, 33, a Gainesville resident, makes, teaches and plays the instrument, which he said is rare in the Southern and Eastern United States. He has lectured on the West African "thumb piano" for four years.

The instrument looks like a wooden cutting board with two rows of metal butter knives. Spalding held the piano like a video-game controller, with two hands wrapped around the bottom corners of the wooden board that formed its base.

When played, it sounds like a jack-in-the-box or a wind chime moving at triple speed. The instrument also makes a lower sound, similar to a shopping cart rolling along asphalt.

"It's a great instrument for someone who is expressive," he said.

The instrument, formally called a Mbira, originated with the Zezuru tribes of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. It has been played for more than 1,000 years at religious rituals, royal courts and social occasions.

The Zimbabweans traditionally used the instrument as "a telephone for the spirits," a way to summon their deceased ancestors and tribal guardians.

Spalding, who grew up in northern Indiana, said the Mbira is somewhat popular in the Northwestern United States.

Eleven years ago, Spalding was walking across a bridge in Indiana when he saw his first Mbira in the hands of a stranger, Treothe Bullock. Spalding began studying with Bullock and learned the instrument in a matter of weeks.

Since then, Spalding has played in two bands.

In 2001, Spalding played at a religious ceremony held by a Shona community in Canada. Although he has not performed in a year, he continues to practice, lecture and give private lessons.

"It's almost like a meditation to sit and play it," he said. "I really enjoy it."

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Spalding said he lectures and teaches the instrument free of charge in order to pass on the gift.

"I feel like this is something that was given to me," he said. "I shouldn't charge for something that was given to me for free."

Spalding introduced the instrument to Gainesville, and Orlando is the only other part of Florida where he knows of someone who plays it.

A few Gainesville residents are taking lessons with Spalding. They meet individually for about an hour every two weeks at his house. Some of them were recruited through his lectures at UF.

The instrument is not easy to learn, he said. Some students give up before completing their first song, and some take months to learn the basics.

Spalding can play more than 50 traditional songs and between 10 and 15 modern compositions. He learns new songs and variations whenever he can. There is a traditional repertoire of hundreds of songs to learn, he said.

From 2001 to 2007, Spalding, who has a background in carpentry, sold custom-made Mbiras. He said he stopped making them because authentic African Mbiras are now easily available online and have become cheaper for Spalding to buy than to produce.

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