Name: Mbira.
Type: Idiophones > Lamellaphones > Combs.
Hornbostel Sachs No#: 122.1
Country: Zimbabwe.
Region: Southern Africa.

Shona Mbira, Zimbabwe

Description: The mbira [pronounced as M Bee Ra or in 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 lamellophone 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 polyrhythms.

History: Numerous plucked idiophones of different kinds have existed in the African continent for 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 The tines [tongues or lamellae] were originally made of bamboo but over the years metal keys have been developed.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 differentiated in its physical form and social uses as it spread. Kalimba-like instruments came to exist from the northern reaches of North Africa to the southern extent of the Kalahari Desert, and from the east coast to the west coast, 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 mbira from 1,300 years.

Varieties: The nyunga nyunga mbira 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 assigned in even numbers 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 10 12 and 14 while the bottom row keys are notated as odd numbers 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 A / G / F / A / F / C / D and E. But the Maraire number notation has remained the internationally accepted system [Chirimumimba, 2007].

Mbira Notation
Name Notation
Nyunga Nyunga [Second Row] 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 10 12 / 14
Nyunga Nyunga [First Row] 1 / 3 / 5 / 7 / 9 / 11 / 13 / 15
Alphabetic Notation E / D / C / F / C / D / E
Alphabetic Notation A / G / F / A / F / C / D / E

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.

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.

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

Tom Tom (also thoom, thom or toom) popular in Gambela Region, in Western Ethiopia on the border of South Sudan.

Citations: Bibliography: Warner Dietz, Betty; Olatunji, Michael Babatunde 1965 ; Musical Instruments of Africa; Their Nature, Use, and Place in the Life of a Deeply Musical People. New York City: John Day Company ; Howard, Joseph H. 1967. Drums in the Americas. New York City: Oak Publications ; Mutwa, Credo Vusa’mazulu 1969. My people: the incredible writings of Credo Vusa’mazulu Mutwa Johannesburg: Blue Crane Books ; Andrew Tracey, 1970 “The Matepe Mbira Music of Rhodesia”. Journal of the African Music Society 37–61. Note: this article is the original source of the Matepe song Siti, as played by Zimbabwean Marimba band Musango ; Hugh Tracey 1961 – The evolution of African music and its function in the present day. Johannesburg: Institute for the Study of Man in Africa ; Tracey, Hugh 1969 “The Mbira class of African Instruments in Rhodesia 1932 ; African Music Society Journal. 4 [3]: 78–95 ; Paul Berliner c. 1978 – The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. Berkeley: University of California Press ;

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