Guide to the Mbira

The mbira is an idiophone instrument that is classified under lamellaphone, meaning a small metal plate. Aside from its name, the mbira is also known as finger harp, gourd piano, thumb piano, and zanzu. It is a musical instrument that is mostly used by the Shona people, an ethnic group that is native to Southern Africa. For over a thousand years, several plucked lamellaphones and idiophones can be found in the country of Africa. Initially, most types of mbira have about 22 or 28 metal keys that are mounted on a hardwood soundboard called gwariva. This soundboard was made out of the mubvamaropa tree. 

In addition to that, its metal keys were smelted directly from a rock that contains iron ore. However, nowadays, the metal keys were made of steel that comes from bedsprings, car seat springs, bicycle spokes, and other recycled or new materials. Aside from steel, copper or brass may also be used.

Most often, the mbira is placed inside a large calabash resonator called deze in order to amplify its sound. But because of recurring droughts, the deze is now often made of black or yellow fiberglass that is molded on a calabash. Also, bottle tops are mounted on the resonator to increase the texture of the mbira’s sound. Additionally, a small stick is used in wedging the instrument safely inside the calabash resonator. Metal beads, bottle tops, or shells are also used and placed on the lower part of the mbira soundboard. This was done to add a buzzing sound, which could vary from soft hiss to a tambourine-like effect.  

The buzzing sound that the mbira produces is considered an essential part of the instrument’s sound. This is considered as a factor that adds depth, as well as context, to the clear tone of the mbira keys. Sometimes, the buzzing tone might be heard as singing, tapping, wind, or whispering sound. The buzzing sound also helps in increasing the volume of the mbira.

Mbira players could use different tunings. In fact, each region or village has its own pitch tunings. Some also have their own personal or regional preferences ranging from very low to high pitch. However, each instrument has a range of about 3 to 3 ½ octaves. Interestingly, the octave’s relationship in the mbira’s key layout is consistent even if the intervals are different. These were played by stroking down the keys using the player’s two thumbs while the forefinger strokes up the keys. 

There are some variants of the mbira. These includes Mbira Dzavadzimu, Mbira Nyunga Nyunga, Njari Mbira, Nhare, and Mbira Matepe. 

Mbira Nyunga Nyunga: This mbira typically has fifteen keys that originated from Manicaland, Zimbabwe. Traditionally, the mbira Nyunga Nyunga is used in entertainment roles, especially in social gatherings or commemorations.  

Njari Mbira: The Njari Mbira is a variant of mbira that has 30 to 24 keys. Its place of origin is also in Zimbabwe, most particularly Makonde and Masvingo. 

Nhare: This mbira variant has the standard 23 to 24 keys. The Nhare was said to originate from Zimbabwe and is used for rituals, as well as in communicating with their god Nyadenga and Musikavanhu. 

Mbira Matepe: The mbira matepe is a mbira that has 26 keys. It also originated in the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

In addition to its function in the African continent, the mbira was also used and feature in the 1980 film title The Gods Must Be Crazy, which is set in Botswana. Moreover, in May 2020, as part of the Culture Week of Zimbabwe, Google had honored the instrument with a doodle. This doodle comes with a button that allows the user to play, as well as to hear the instrument virtually. Along with the buttons and the doodle was the story of a young girl who learned the mbira and became an established artist as an adult. This story had been the inspiration of several mbira players in the new generation.

Other notable mbira players include the Zimbabwean singer and artists Tendayi Gahamadze, Chartwell Shorayi Dutiro, Cosmas Magaya, Ephat Mujuru, Abraham Dumisani Maraire, and Chiwoniso Maraire, the daughter of Dumisani.