Under his thumb

Dan Farney

Photo By Tom Angel

I knew him for a long time simply as Kalimba Dan. But the folks he works with in the lab at Lifetouch National School Studios in south Chico, where they produce “probably a third of all the school pictures in the U.S.,” know him as Dan Farney. In fact, they don’t even know he plays the kalimba, a.k.a. “thumb piano.” As he said, he lives sort of a double life. But practically every musician in Chico knows Kalimba Dan because he’s played with “pretty much everybody over 30.” He’s played all styles of music with all kinds of people, from “Ed the cowboy” (Edward Aaron Smith) to Peter Berkow to Spark ‘n’ Cinder to various jazz groups, including some that I’ve been in. He hasn’t had to cut his thumbnails since the early 70s—playing the kalimba is enough to keep them wore down.

For the uninitiated, what’s a kalimba? How many do you have?

It’s South African in origin. They’ve been in Africa forever, since before recorded history. Kalimbas made out of gourds are most common. I’ve seen some made with coconuts. A lot of them are made out of wood. The metal “reeds” [that you play with your thumbs] are most commonly made from flattened bicycle spokes. I have more than 100, in different scales. I have a South American bass version and one from [local saxophonist] Charlie Haynes from South Africa made from a Shell oil can and umbrella spokes for reeds.

I heard a rumor that once your suitcase full of kalimbas was suspected of being a bomb. What’s the story on that?

I was sitting in with Holly Taylor and Eric Peter at the Chico Mall one Christmas. Somebody’s grandmother from San Jose saw me set my suitcase under the table [near where we were playing], and she reported me to security because she thought it might be a bomb. After that, Eric started calling me the Kalimba Bomber!

Another rumor: I heard you used to show up at gigs on roller skates. What’s up with that?

Yeah, now they’ve pretty much outlawed fun in public. But in the ‘80s, I lived on the coast and used to come to Chico, park my van, put on my skates and just leave ’em on. It was fun. But going up and down stairs and over the microphone cords [on stage], there was always the added suspense of whether I was going to take a nosedive.

Are you a kalimba expert?

I’ve probably been accused of that.