The Mbira Instrument: History & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The mbira is a traditional African instrument that has been played for over a thousand years. In this lesson we will discuss the instrument and its history.

Out of Africa

It is the middle of the night in the wilds of Zimbabwe. You've been invited to attend a sacred ceremony. The dancing and costumes are fascinating and exotic. The Shona people gathered around you are chanting and meditating. Underneath it all, music is playing - music you've never heard before. It is bell-like, repetitious, rattling, buzzing, and strangely hypnotic. You're listening to the mbira (pronounced 'um-BEER-a').

Mbira or Thumb Piano?

Photo of a mbira

The mbira is an instrument from the African continent. It is sometimes called the 'thumb piano' because it is played with the thumbs and one finger. The mbira is made of 22 to 28 metal keys attached to a hardwood soundboard called the gwariva, usually placed inside a large gourd to amplify the sound. The metal keys are plucked with both thumbs and the forefinger of the right hand. The thumbs pluck downward on the keys. The forefinger plucks upward from beneath the keys.

Traditionally, the keys were made from iron ore smelted from rocks. Today it is common for the keys to be made of recycled materials, such as sofa springs, car spokes, or cans. Other recycled items, such as shells, beads, and bottle caps, are attached to the soundboard to create a buzzing sound.

The Mbira and the Shona

A traditional Shona farm
Photo of a Shona farm

The mbira is found throughout the African continent, but it is associated most closely with the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The Shona have played the mbira for more than a thousand years. It is mentioned in their literature and is a part of their worship and rituals. The Shona name for the instrument is mbira dzavadzimu, which means 'mbira of the ancestors.'

The mbira is played for important Shona ceremonies, such as the bira, an all-night spirit possession ceremony. For these ceremonies the mbira is accompanied by hand-clapping, singing, and percussion instruments. The Shona believe that the music of the mbira connects them to their ancestors.

A traditional, decorative mbira
Photo of a decorative mbira

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