Zimbabwean Mbira/Kalimba music
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The Mbira (em-beer-a) instrument originally comes from the Shona people in Zimbabwe.
Traditionally they are used for healing and religious ceremonies called ‘Biras’, hence the name mbira. The wooden mbira dates back about 3000 years on the west coast of Africa, while the metal-tined variant is the most common; it is approximately 1300 years old. The mbira is found in the same areas as the xylophone, both instruments have similar tunings and often share local names.
Instruments & Music Theory
The mbira is a lamellophone, unique to Africa and distributed throughout the entire continent. It has a hollow body, usually made of calabash wood, with two rows of tuned metal tines pressed into the body using metal bars. It has a very characteristic ‘buzzing’ sound, since the vibrations of the plucked tine will carry over into adjacent tines.
The tongues of the instrument are attached to a wooden box resonator, often made from calabash trees. Similar instruments include the Mbila, made with a resonator of tin cans. Many instruments similar to the Mbira can be found. The Mbila is a good example of this. Here the only difference is that the resonator of the instrument is made from tin cans. Mbiras are played cross-rhythm or polyrhythmic. Usually the left hand plays the bass, while the right hand plays the melody.
Garikayi Tirikoti building a mbira
The Kalimba, a westernized version, was designed and marketed in the 1950s by Ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey. On a kalimba, the deepest notes are in the middle. Kalimbas have one row of tines, while the mbira has two. Another key difference is the mbiras’ very characteristic buzzing sound. The tunings are also different, the kalimba is based on Western music theory, meaning that it will usually play a set scale. Because the scale on a kalimba is set, it is essentially impossible to “play it wrong”.
Jianan building a kalimba
Video of Kinobe playing the ‘Akogo’, a Ugandan “thumb piano” very similar to the kalimba.
A percussion instrument made from a pair of dried maranka gourds filled with seeds from the hota plant. A maranka (or mapudzi) is a kind of pumpkin.
Hosho shakers commonly accompany mbira, keeping the beat along with a ngoma drum.
Video of Kelvin Chikumbirike and company playing hosho, marimba and mbira
A percussion instrument consisting of wooden bars that you strike with rubber mallets. The modern Zimbabwean marimba was developed in the 60s at the Kwanongoma college in Bulawayo, specifically to teach school-children music.
Hillcrest College - Marimba Challenge Cup Winner
Young Zimbabweans perform in a Marimba Band
If you are interested in learning more about this kind of music you could start listening to Dumisani Maraire,
Mbira Dze Nharira.
Professor Anand Prahlad explaining the history behind the Mbira
MBIRA (Chiweshe, Stella)
mbira (Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia)