THE KALIMBA STORY
Yet too frequently, EWF’s commercial success prevents people from taking them seriously. Maurice White’s carefully crafted pop delicacies and boundless optimism are often mistakenly perceived as a slick unthreatening mirror image of the psychedelic jam of George Clinton’s Funkadelic army, EWF’s primary rivals for domination of the era’s black charts.
There is a small object that helps illustrate the complexity of Earth, Wind & Fire’s achievement – an African thumb piano called a kalimba. The kalimba is clearly close to Maurice White’s heart, he introduced it to millions of listeners by making it a centerpiece of Earth, Wind & Fire’s spectacular concerts. It was a staple of the group’s albums. White even named his production company Kalimba Productions. "The kalimba represented my link to Africa," he explains. "It was my way of taking part of that culture and spreading it all over the world."
Beyond all that, though, the instrument is a tangible example of Earth, Wind & Fire’s special magic by naturally synthesizing various music and cultures into innovative, accessible songs, the group made global beats and racial pride radio-friendly and expanded the parameters of pop forever.
Maurice White himself is the product of multiple musical heritages, but his grounding in classic African-American music, together with a canny sense of pop tastes and commercial necessities, served as the foundation for all of White’s subsequent work, no matter how many layers were eventually added on top. The meeting of down-home Memphis church singing with the sophisticated craft of the Chicago jazz and studio work made for a sensibility that was simultaneously adventurous and accessible, slamming and subtle. Nowhere would this combination be more evident than in Earth, Wind & Fire’s signature horn section.
Earth Wind & Fire were among the first pop culture superstars to embrace their African heritage proudly. From their use of African instruments to their on-stage robes and dashikis to the iconography on their album covers, they drew explicit connections between black Americans and their ancestors around the world.
Of his widespread contributions to pop music, White seems most pleased with his impact on hip-hop and the generation of rappers who grew up listening to his songs. "We went all around the world being proud of who we were and spreading information, linking and connecting to our brothers around the world," he says. "To see groups like A Tribe Called Quest (who have sampled several EWF songs) take that even further and do it with pride is something beautiful to watch."
Maurice White acknowledges that the musical evolution of Earth, Wind & Fire follows a logical, linear path – jazz to r&b to funk to the techno-grooves of Raise and Powerlight – held together by African and Latin rhythms; "It all comes back to Africa, man. That’s where it all starts." Characteristically, though, he credits a higher power with the groups progression and lengthy popularity. "None of this was planned," he says. "The universe played a part in the whole thing, obviously. We just took our cues from the universe and kept moving on."