Type: Plucked > Lamellaphone > Idiophone.
Hornbostel Sachs No#: 122.1
Region: Southern Africa.
Description: The mbira [pronounced as M Bee Ra or IPA (ə)mˈbɪərə] it is an African musical instrument consisting of a wooden board often fitted with a gourd resonator. The mbira is classified as a plucked lamellaphone or comb lamellaphone in the idiophone family.
The instrument and its resonator are often attached with soda bottle caps. The Mbira is played by the musician holding it by their left and right hands. It is played by plucking with the thumbs allowing for complex poly rhythms.
History: Numerous plucked idiophones of different kinds have existed in the African continent for thousands of 3,000 years. The tines [tongues or lamellae] were originally made of bamboo but over the years metal keys have been developed.
The metal tongued lamellaphones appeared in the Zambezi River valley around 1,300 years ago. These metal-tined instruments traveled all across the continent, becoming popular among the Shona of Zimbabwe, from which the word mbira comes and other indigenous groups in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Usage: The mbira has differentiated in its physical form and social uses as the instrument spread. Kalimba-like instruments came to exist from northern reaches of North Africa to the southern regions in South Africa. They are also found from the east to the west coasts of the African continent. Though many or most groups of people in Africa did not possess mbiras.
There were thousands of different tunings, different note layouts and different instrument designs. But there is a hypothetical tuning and note layout of the original metal-tined instrument from 1,300 years ago.
Types: The nyunga nyunga which normally has 15 keys, originated from Manicaland where it traditionally played the entertainment role during social gatherings and commemorations. Jeke [Jack] Tapera introduced the mbira nyunga nyunga in the 1960s from Tete province of Mozambique to Kwanongoma College of African music [now United College of Music] in Bulawayo.
Two keys were then added to make fifteen [Chirimumimba, 2007] in two rows. The mbira nyunga nyunga is similar in construction to the mbira dzavadzimu, but has no hole in the soundboard. Key pitch radiates out from the center, rather than from left to right.
Notation: Zimbabwe’s Dumisani Maraire originated mbira nyunga nyunga number notation. The upper row keys [from left] are keys 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 10 12 and 14 while the bottom row keys are notated as 1 / 3 / 5 / 7 / 9 / 11 / 13 and 15. Maraire brought awareness of this instrument to the United States when he came to the University of Washington as a visiting artist from 1968–1972.
Recently a Midlands State University [Gweru, Zimbabwe] lecturer in the department of music and musicology has suggested a letter notation; the upper keys as from first left upper key E / D / C / F / C / D, and E and the lower or bottom keys as (from the first lower key) A / G / F / A / F / C / D and E. But the Maraire number notation has remained the internationally accepted system [Chirimumimba, 2007].
Mark Holdaway of Kalimba Magic has introduced a graphic form of tablature for the karimba, and traditional karimba tunes as well as modern songs and new compositions and exercises are available in this tablature.
Njari mbira ~ Njani mbira has 30 to 32 keys and was also originated from Zimbabwe particularly Masvingo and Makonde.
Nhare ~ The nhare has 23 to 24 keys and was originated from Zimbabwe. In the Zimbabwean tradition, nhare was used for rituals of communicating with Musikavanhu or Nyadenga (God).
Mbira matepe ~ Mbira matepe which has 26 keys originated from along the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique
Varieties: In the mid 1950s the mbira was the basis for the development of the kalimba, a westernized version designed and marketed by the ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, leading to a great expansion of its distribution outside Africa.