Lesser-Known Instruments Strike a Chord Among Music Fans

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toshiko Kitamura, the head of “Otegaru Kalimba Society,” poses with various kalimbas.

The piano, guitar and violin are common musical instruments that people learn to play. However, minor instruments like the kalimba have become surprisingly popular since the pandemic.

Sales of kalimba, a folk instrument from Zimbabwe, have skyrocketed at music stores. As a result, a group has been formed to promote the instrument. One key factor that has led to its rise in popularity is that people can easily learn to play the kalimba through watching videos online.

The instrument, which is played with one’s fingers, is said to be the original model of a music box and its sound is characterized by its gentle, lingering tones.

According to Tokyo-based Yamano Music Co., more people have been drawn to the kalimba in recent years as a result of its appearance in Nintendo’s 2020 video game “Atsumare Dobutsu no Mori” (“Animal Crossing: New Horizons”). At Yamano, only two kalimbas were sold in 2019. However, sales skyrocketed to 742 in 2020, to 3,283 in 2021 and to 5,329 in 2022.

Kalimbas are a relatively inexpensive musical instrument with a standard model priced at around ¥3,000. It is also easy to learn, fairly quiet and can be effortlessly carried around. Such features made it an alluring instrument during the pandemic when people spent most of their time at home.

“The sound is relaxing and healing,” said Misa, an Osaka-based YouTuber in her 20s.

Misa learned about the kalimba on YouTube and started playing it in 2019 by watching and imitating others online. Misa has posted various videos of herself playing the instrument, which has garnered more than 29 million views.

“I’m so happy to hear from people who didn’t even know the instrument existed,” Misa said.

She has also published a book on how to play the kalimba.

Toshiko Kitamura, 64, of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, used to play the kalimba with a small group of people. In 2021, she established the nonprofit organization “Otegaru Kalimba Society” after being asked if she knew anyone who could teach how to play the instrument.

To increase the number of kalimba teachers, the group introduced a system to certify instructors. Now, more than 100 kalimba teachers certified by the organization are holding classes nationwide. In addition, the group has created its own kalimba sheet music for those who cannot read standard music notation. The association has also started performing and teaching at elderly care facilities.

“We want to bring joy to as many people as possible through the power of music,” Kitamura said.

Tones of the Otamatone

Various types of Otamatones are seen.

An electronic musical instrument called the Otamatone sold incredibly well during the pandemic. The tadpole-shaped instrument was developed in 2009 by Tokyo-based artist unit Maywa Denki, which invents unique musical instruments.

A human-like sound comes out of the Otamatone by pressing the stem. The sounds can then be manipulated by opening the mouth of the instrument, which also resembles a musical note.

Partly due to its cute appearance, the Otamatone started becoming more well-known in Japan and abroad around 2021, when it was featured on an overseas TV program. About 1.45 million Otamatones have been sold as of 2022. The term “otamanist” was also coined to describe those who play the Otamatone.

“The rise in popularity of lesser-known instruments is a sign that people are looking for fresh sounds and a new world,” said Kobe University Prof. Misako Ota, an expert in musicology. “Another contributing factor is that people can easily learn how to play via the internet without having to pay expensive fees for classes.”