Sunday, July 8, 2007


Mbira is a general term for a family of instruments called lamellophones. Many mbiras have similar construction and components, but differ in cultural uses, in the number of keys, and in the name. The mbiras are constructed of specially shaped metal keys (size and shape dependent on pitch) which are usually mounted onto a wooden soundboard, and are placed inside a calabash gourd which is used as a resonator. Most mbiras have bottle caps attached to the resonator to create the typical 'buzzy' timbre of African music.

They are played by depressing and releasing the keys, using the index fingers and the thumb. The right and the left thumb play downward, and the right index finger plays upward. The mbira is most commonly used in a group of two mbira players. One mbira plays the kushaura part which is the accompanying part. Typical of African music, each part plays its pattern creating an interlocking piece that sounds cyclic.

Some believe that the mbira is a derivative of the xylophone, almost a portable xylophone due to its similar sound and the similar patterns they play. Perhaps the most documented mbira is the 22-keyed Mbira dza Vadzimu (mbira of the ancestral spirits) of the Shona people in Zimbabwe. It is used to call on the ancestral spirits in the bira (death) ceremony to ask for their guidance, advice, and support. It is seen by the Shona people as a very sacred instrument.

Sekuru ('Grandfather') Gora, born Thomas Wadharwa in 1937 and died March 10, 2002, was one of the most famous mbira players of all time. If you go to any corner of Zimbabwe and mention mbira, without fail Sekuru Gora's name will come up.

Music Album - Sekuru Goya With Chigamba and Moyo in Vakuru Chaivo 2001
2 hours of mbira music simply astounding.

Voices of Africa through the Mbira by Mohamed and Jerry
Reginald and Julius playing mbira music
Tsvai Tsvai Boys

Mbira Music Zimbabwe


tanzanianboy said...

Hi Dada Liz,

Nice coverage again. Is Mbira similar to Marimba (Swahili/East African languages call it marimba)? "Mbira dza Vadzimu" (mbira of the ancestral spirits); here I can see a close similarity in Bantu languages and cultures. In Swahili that may translate "marimba ya mizimu",if and only if mbira=marimba!

Cheers sis!


Habari Tanzania boy,
To the best of my knowledge i don't think the Mbira and Marimba are similar. Marimba's unlike the mbira require the use of 'mallets' when playing it. Marimba is a type of xylophone. The name, features and characteristics of this type of instrument varies from country to country. In west Africa for example they call the marimba 'Balafon'.

luihamu said...

Habari African Liz

one time i was watching carribean music and i saw some of this MBIRA,even the Samba dance in Brazil it seems they are using it or they have modified.

Long long time ago our grandpa and ma used to narrate stories to the young ones as you know the narrates guided the village men.
this Mirimba,mbira played a big part in the clan.

Jah live.