What is ‘mbira’? – Fascinating details of the African music instrument

May 21, 2020: Google Doodle celebrates Zimbabwe’s traditional super musical instrument ‘Mbira’

Mbira is Zimbabwe’s chief traditional music instrument majorly popular among the Shona people.

A major feature of Zimbabwe’s traditional music, the mbira exists with slight modifications among different locales and goes by several other names like ikembe, kalimba, sanza, etc.

In English, the mbira is often called a finger harp, or gourd piano, or thumb piano. The mbira has two major parts: a wooden board (this can be rectangular or round with a hole in the middle) and several attached metal prongs. The mbira is played by holding the board and then plucking the metal prongs with the fingers.

Mbira produces a low and clear chimelike musical sound. In many parts of Zimbabwe, the instrument is widely played at social occasions and big ceremonies, like weddings.

The mbira is in a way related to the local xylophones that are found in many parts of West Africa including Nigeria. A kind of special xylophone found in the Nsukka area of Southeastern Nigeria closely resembles the mbira in mechanism.

The mbira was originally made with bamboo before they are replaced with metals for better sound.

Another variation of the mbira called ‘kalimba’

One of the most well-known mbira players in Zimbabwe is Leonard Chiyanike. Chiyanike who has played the instrument since he was a boy in the 1960s also manufactures mbiras. He describes his mastery in making and playing the mbira as “a delicate process that I have mastered over the years.”

In most locales, the mbira holds a deeper spiritual significance. The instrument is often associated with spirit worship and becoming a player would require a minor initiation ritual.

Chiyanike once said: “The mbira is for the makombwe and vepasi (spirits) and it is not something you can just play around with.”

Most traditional players of the mbira believe if it is played well, the music can be used to consult with ancestral spirits. “Play the mbira well and the spirits will come out to listen.”

Stella Chiweshe is another Zimbabwean artist well known for working with the mbira.

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