When I was invited to sit in on a casual recording session with Anania Ngoliga, the Tanzanian musician featured prominently along side banjo master Bela Fleck in the film Throw Down Your Heart, I was excited, to say the least. Anyone who has seen the film will remember Anania’s smiling face and beautiful playing of the illimba, a thumb-piano traditionally played by the Wagogo people of central Tanzania. I remember the first time I saw the film, and feeling the joyful spirit of this man pour out of the speakers and screen. Having had the chance to get to know him and his music in person, I cannot help but feel blessed.
Notes gracefully flow off the strings as soon as a guitar lands in his hands. “I myself am not good in guitar,” he says, a modest exaggeration that becomes laughable upon hearing him play with such ease. The soul reverberating in the music played by this blind musician from Dodoma is inescapable. I cannot help but feel something elemental in Anania’s playing, no matter if he is playing blues on the guitar, or the rolling, melodically trance-inducing rhythms of the illimba. Like the warm breeze that blows on the Tanzanian coast, the red earth that surrounds Dodoma, or the bright indigo of the Zanzibari sea, the music that flows out of this man is naturally pristine.
Like all thumb-piano instruments (lamellophones, musicologically speaking,) the illimba (malimba pl.) is often mistakenly called “kalimba.” But to set the record straight once and for all (certainly not for the last time, I’m sure,) the “kalimba” is a thumb-piano tuned to a Western scale, so as to easily play along with other European tempered instruments. The kalimba is a European invention, an adaptation of much older African instruments that play in traditional tunings like the illimba, and the mbira. So please take heed, exotic instrument enthusiasts and world music heads. What Anania plays is not a kalimba.
To think that this bright and richly resonant instrument has its origins in the Dodoma region, an area that struck me as anything but alive, is at first glance, a paradox. Yet the more time I have spent in Tanzania, the more I have been shown a generosity and liveliness exhibited by its people that is deeply resilient and refreshing, like the rickety little wooden fishing boats that brave the open ocean, or drops of water falling on parched earth.
There is much that can be said about Anania, and his beautiful music. But truly, it speaks for itself. I hope you enjoy these beautiful tunes as much as I do.