The mbira is a wooden and metal musical instrument which comes from the culture of the Shona people of the southern African nations of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The Shona have played mbiras for at least 1,000 years.
Erica Azim, mbira player, teacher, and founder of The Mbira Organization (mbira.org), explained that in Shona culture the mbira “is basically the telephone to the ancestors.”
“The mbira calls the ancestors to come and take care of you, to speak to you, to give advice,” she told MakingMusicMag.com during a recent interview. “This is its most important function in the old traditional culture before the missionaries came” to Zimbabwe.
Erica said that mbira music also plays a similar role as does music in any culture, to heal, to celebrate, to dance, and to entertain.
Construction of the Mbira
An mbira can include anywhere from 22 to 28 metal keys of various sizes, mounted on a soundboard called the gwavira, which itself is made from a hardwood from the mubvamaropa tree. The metal keys are arranged in a fan shape, with the longest keys (which play the lowest notes) in the middle, with higher keys surrounding the lower middle ones and alternating side-to-side. There is a double row of keys on the left side of the instrument, with a single row on the right.
To better project its sound, the mbira is often placed inside a resonator made from a calabash gourd, called a deze; it is mounted inside the deze by wedging a small stick called a mutsigo between the deze and the mbira itself.
A series of shakers, which can be bottle caps, metal beads mounted on a wire or seashells, are mounted on the lower part of the gwavira, give the instrument a soft tambourine-like sound. Such shakers may also be mounted on the deze to further the buzzing effect.
According to mbira.org, the buzzing sound is essential to the instrument as it is meant to “clear the mind of thoughts and worries so that music fills the consciousness of both musicians and listeners.” It also serves to boost the instrument’s volume while adding a unique aspect to the mbira’s sound.
The mbira is held upright in a close-to-vertical position, with the fingers of the left hand supporting the instrument and the right pinkie finger through the small hole on the lower right of the gwavira to aid in support. With the left thumb, the player plucks the keys in the double row with a downward motion. The right thumb is used to pluck only the longest three keys in the single row – the ones on the left of this row – while the right index finger plucks the other keys in the single row by moving upward. The keys are plucked with both the fleshy ends of the thumbs and index finger, as well as the thumbnails and fingernails. Special metal fingerpicks may also be used.
Traditionally, each Shona village had its own scheme for tuning its mbiras. Today, tuning systems still vary but have become more standardized and have been given names. The most common tuning is Nyamaropa, in which the intervals are similar to those in mixolydian mode; others include Mavembe or Gandanga – with intervals similar to phrygian mode, and Dambatsoko – with intervals akin to a major scale.
Erica first heard the mbira in 1971 and tried to teach herself how to play the instrument from recordings, which at that time were few and far between in the U.S. By 1974, she had saved enough money to travel to Zimbabwe, which was then called Rhodesia and governed by an apartheid-style regime similar to that in South Africa.
“I managed to meet musicians working in the capital city [then called Salisbury, now called Harare] and so I was able to study and play,” Erica said. “It was not quite as strict as in South Africa – I could go to the townships [where the black mbira players lived] but could not stay overnight. So I was able to study with the top musicians.”
After only a few months in Rhodesia, she was invited to play mbira with a group of musicians on a radio show. Later, upon meeting people who had listened to the show, she learned that “they didn’t believe I was really playing. They thought it was a lie.”
She had to pass a test to gain the locals’ confidence.
“They said ‘let her play alone’,” Erica said. “Here I am a young white girl in her 20s playing their instrument and singing in their language. People were welcoming, they loved it!”
Erica noted that mbira music is much like jazz, in the sense that it is very improvisational, yet each piece follows a specific structure.
“The song cycle has a specific order, and the interlocking parts have to work together,” she explained. “You must understand what’s in the piece and how to interpret it. It’s very improvisational but still has to be true to the piece.”
Great Mbira Players
- “Sumaita” Vitalis Wilbert Botsa: https://mbira.org/what-is-mbira/mbira-musicians/samaita-vitalis-botsa/
- Leonard Chiyanike: https://mbira.org/what-is-mbira/mbira-musicians/leonard-chiyanike/
- Forward Kwenda: https://mbira.org/what-is-mbira/mbira-musicians/forward-kwenda/
- Caution Shonhai: https://mbira.org/what-is-mbira/mbira-musicians/caution-shonhai/
- Tute Chigamba: https://mbira.org/what-is-mbira/mbira-musicians/tute-chigamba/
For more on this unique instrument, check out: www.mbira.org. The Mbira Organization is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) public benefit corporation based in California. According to a statement on the group’s website, it “supports the ancient musical traditions of Zimbabwe through education, performances, and recordings in the United States and worldwide. It maintains the largest archive of Shona music in the world and provides essential support to 300 traditional musicians and 20 instrument makers in Zimbabwe.” All donations are tax-deductible.
[Photo credits: Individual mbira photos by Jon Dufort; Photo of mbira with deze & mutsigo and photo of mbira builder Fradreck Mujuru playing mbira both courtesy Mbira.org.]