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In East African music, the mbira (also lkembe) is a gourd-resonated "thumb piano", a musical instrument consisting of a wooden board to which staggered metal keys have been attached fitted into a resonator. In East African there are many kinds of mbira, all accompanied by the hosho, among the Shona there are at least three, see Shona music. (Garfias 1971)

The mbira dzavadzimu is a musical instrument popular among the Shona of Zimbabwe for at least 1,000 years. It is often heard at religious rituals, in the royal courts and at social gatherings. The name means mbira of the ancestor spirits. It is also known as sanza.

From 22 to 28 strips of forged metal of varying lengths are affixed to a hardwood soundboard and the whole piece is usually placed inside a large resonator made of a calabash (called the deze) to amplify the sound. In effect, there are two levels of sound amplification: first the soundboard and then the gourd. The metal keys on the instruments are curved upward at the loose ends, and are stroked with the two thumbs plucking down and the right forefinger plucking up. The sound is somewhat like a marimba, but with an almost harp-like effect. By the way the sound is produced, the instrument is classified into the lamellaphones family.

The metal keys are arranged in three ranks for easy playing. The deze, or gourd, is strung with bottle caps or shells that shake in sympathy with the vibrations of plucked keys, producing a buzzing sound. Except for the sound distortions of modern rock, also created by amplification, albeit electronic, western music does not use a buzzing sound as part of the music. The buzz of the mbira is integrated into the music where the buzz tunes out other stimuli and allows the listener to hear the mbira rhythms. Beyond the music itself, the mbira represents the spiritual values of the Shona, their culture, religion and aspirations as a people.

To a westerner, the melody appears to be extremely repetitive, or at least cyclic, but upon closer listening there are minute variations, suggestive of the minimalist movement in western music (for example Philip Glass, et al). There seems to be no general consensus as to the tuning of the instrument. Indeed, mbira players have been known to change the settings at will. In recent years there seems to be a movement toward the western views of pitch, but traditionalists still cling to seven or five notes to an octave without a tonic. The rhythms are intricate and to some extent seem to dictate the form of the melody.

Interest in the mbira has increased in the west and some musicians are experimenting with the sound, rhythm and modes of the instrument. Groups of western mbira players have developed their own fusion style of playing, that is neither totally African nor completely western.


  • Nonesuch Explorer Series 79703-2, Zimbabwe: The African Mbira: Music of the Shona People (2002). Liner notes by Robert Garfias (1971).

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