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WNC musician merges traditional instrument with modern technology

When Kevin Spears steps onto the stage at White Horse Black Mountain, you can tell there’s something different about him. His fast moving fingers deftly maneuver the kalimba, a traditional African instrument that looks more like a box piano than a drum, though it is a percussion instrument. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

When Kevin Spears steps onto the stage at White Horse Black Mountain, you can tell there’s something different about him.

His fast moving fingers deftly maneuver the kalimba, a traditional African instrument that looks more like a box piano than a drum, though it is a percussion instrument.

“Oh, he's amazing. I've never seen such fast thumbs,” said Annette Hunter, of Asheville.

Spears' thumbs slap the back and strike the keys quickly, producing sounds that literally move people, whether it’s a head nod, sway of the body or the tapping of a foot.

“It's rooted in the African rhythms, so you can't sit still. At least you have to pat a foot,” said Don Talley, co-manager of White Horse Black Mountain.

Spears said from a traditional standpoint, the kalimba is played in a 3-5 note combination with a singer adding vocals on top of it. But that tradition is only the foundation of what Spears can do.

“What put me on the map is when I started using electronics, and it allowed me to be a whole band,” Spears said.

Now, when he plays, he can add elements that resemble some of the greats he admires, like B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix.

Spears is a one-man band merging a traditional instrument with the sounds of new-age technology.

“For me, the kalimba allows me to speak in ways that I probably would not be able to do otherwise,” Spears said.

For this musical medicine man, it all started decades ago as a little boy.

He saw the kalimba on the cover of an Earth, Wind and Fire album and knew he had to have one.

He asked his mom to get him one for Christmas, and she did.

“When she bought them, probably two weeks after Christmas, that was the only thing that I had opened up,” he said.

Some 40 years later, he’s still playing.

“If I was frustrated, if I was tired, if I was misunderstood, I played kalimba. That was my outlet, and so it became medicine for me,” Spears said.

Spears practices in a historically black church nestled in Western North Carolina.

“It's a beautiful gift or honor for this African-American church to have been opened up to me in order to be able to play, to rehearse and to commune with the music and, hopefully, to be uplififting to other people,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons he plays.

“Whatever music that I deliver, if the spiritual intent is not to uplift other human beings, what good is it? What is it for?” Spears asked.

The only thing left, to share it with others.

"Everybody has their gift, you know what I mean. And I've found instruments that allow me to speak, you know, speak my way,” Spears said.

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