Instruments from Africa: Mbira

Have you ever found yourself flicking your thumb on the inside of your index finger? If you have, you could have what it takes to be a Mbira player. All you need is some musical expertise, an ear for music, and a Mbira instrument.

The Mbira might be small, but this little instrument has made a massive impact on the history of African music. Utterly complex in its construct, the Mbira showcases the technical genius of early Shona people. Below we discuss why the Mbira is a tribute to design genius, what it is made of, and who uses it.

Man playing mbira, an African musical instrument

Origins of the Mbira

Although the exact date of discovery of the Mbira is unknown, instruments like it were found to have been in existence around 3000 years ago. The Mbira is said to have been found from the northern regions of Africa all the way to the south near the Kalahari Desert around 1300 years ago.

Known as a traditional instrument of the Shona people in Zimbabwe, the Mbira (Mbira Dzavadzima) is a highly complex construction. The instrument proves how technologically advanced they were, as it required an in-depth understanding of stressing materials to create notes.

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Components of the Mbira

The materials used to make the Mbira differ depending on the region but are generally the same in some aspects of the structure. The instruments consist of several keys strapped in place using a unique placement, ensuring the pulling of each key makes a resonating sound.

The keys are made from an array of materials, with metal being one of the most popular. It offers a continuous resonating sound and is stiff, difficult to snap, and easier to mould into the right shape and size.

Each key is placed strategically in between two horizontal bars, one higher than the other. The keys are placed above the one bar and below the other, with the top of the key pushing against the wooden surface and the bottom of the key sitting neatly in the air.

Once the key is fixed firmly in place, it can be flicked to make a sound. To manipulate the sounds, each key is different in size, shape, and length. The longer the key, the deeper and longer the sound. The shorter keys offer a higher pitch. The keys are generally placed in an order of left to right, shortest to longest.

Most of the constructs differ when it comes to the placement of the keys into a frame. Some used a plain piece of flat wood, others used a tambourine-like structure, with animal skin stretched over it and the Mbira placed inside to resonate the sound. One of the most popular versions of the modern times is to have the keys placed above a hollowed box which acts as the resonator.

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How to Play the Mbira

By holding a typical Mbira in your hands like a normal remote or mobile phone, you can flick keys downwards using your thumbs. The harder you flick, the louder or longer the key can play. As the key vibrates, it resonates a note which can be played alongside others to form a musical theme, thereby creating music.

Since the 1950s when the Mbira was popularised by international musicians, many people have tried their hand at playing this amazing little instrument. Some were able to create music that followed a symphony, while others just played notes to their heart’s content. Whichever it was, the Mbira always emits a peaceful harmony similar to that of an angelic harp.