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Mbira Dzavadzimu in deze (top), Mbira Nyunga Nyunga (bottom), Hosho (bottom left).

In East African music, the mbira (also known as likembe, lkembe, lokembe, lukeme, lukembé or thumb piano) is a musical instrument consisting of a wooden board to which staggered metal keys have been attached. It is often fitted into a resonator. In East Africa there are many kinds of mbira, all accompanied by the hosho. Among the Shona there are at least three (see Shona music). (Garfias 1971). It is similar to the kalimba or marímbula of the Caribbean Islands.

The Mbira is usually classafied as part of the lamellaphone family.

Types of Mbira

Mbira Dzavadzimu

File:Mbira dzavadzimu.jpg
Mbira Dzavadzimu

In Shona music, the mbira dzavadzimu (or mbira of the ancestor spirits) is a musical instrument that has been used by the Shona people of Zimbabwe for at least 1,000 years. It is often played at religious ceremonies and social gatherings. The mbira is almost awlays accompanied by the hosho.


The mbira dzavadzimu is constructed from 22 to 28 strips of forged or hammered metal or of varying lengths affixed to a hardwood soundboard. The soundboard has a hole in the bottom right corner through which the little finger of the right hand is placed while playing to stabalize the instrument. There are usually several bottle caps, shells or other objects affixed to the soundboard which create a buzzing sound when the instrument is played.

The keys are arranged in three rows, two on the left and one on the right. The bottom-left row contains the bass keys, the top-left row the middle-range keys and the right row the high keys.


File:Holding an mbira dzavadzimu.jpg
How to hold an mbira dzavadzimu

There is much variation in the specifics of playing the mbira dzavadzimu, but this represents the typical method:

The right little finger is placed in the hole in the bottom-right of the soundboard, the middle and ring fingers are placed behind the instrument. This leaves the right thumb and index finger free to play the keys. The left hand is cupped around the left side of the instrument, with all fingers but the thumb placed behind the instrument. Both rows on the left are played with the left thumb by drawing and pressing the thumb down the top of the key, and off the end. This causes the key to vibrate up and down. The first three keys on the right are played with the right thumb in a similar manner. The rest of the keys on the right are played with the right index finger, but unlike with the rest of the keys, the index finger is drawn up the bottom of the key.

The metal keys on the instruments are curved upward at the loose ends, and are stroked with the two thumbs plucking down and the right forefinger plucking up. The sound is somewhat like a marimba, but with an almost harp-like effect.


File:Mbira dzavadzimu in deze.jpg
Mbira Dzavadzimu in a Deze.

The whole piece is often placed inside a deze, a large resonator made of a calabash, to amplify the sound. In effect, there are two levels of sound amplification: first the soundboard and then the gourd.

The metal keys are arranged in three ranks for easy playing. The deze, or gourd, is strung with miniature Hosho, in the form of bottle caps or shells that shake in sympathy with the vibrations of plucked keys, producing a buzzing sound. Except for the sound distortions of modern rock, also created by amplification, albeit electronic, western music does not use a buzzing sound as part of the music. The buzz of the mbira is integrated into the music where the buzz tunes out other stimuli and allows the listener to hear the mbira rhythms. Beyond the music itself, the mbira represents the spiritual values of the Shona, their culture, religion and aspirations as a people. In most African cultures it is the drum that is used to call on the spirits of the ancestors, but among the Shona, in particular it is the Mbira which carries out this function.


The tuning of the instrument is designed to mimic the voice of the instrument maker, which naturally lends itself to a wide variation in tuning from one instrument to another. However, there is a method to this madness in that similar intervals between the notes will be apparent to an adept player. Over the centuries the variations in these intervals have been given names, derived from various songs or places associated with the aforementioned tuning. Some of the most popular tunings are called Nyamaropa (named after an one of the most popular traditional Shona songs), Gandanga and Dambatsoko, the latter being the places of origin of some of the oldest Mbira families in Zimbabwe. We could compare this to the various scales in Western music, i.e. Lydian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Dorian, Syntolydian and Ionian. In Western music each of these scales gives the listener a different feeling, even though the only thing that's been changed is the starting note. The same is true of Mbira tuning. By playing an instrument with a different tuning, even though the intervals may be similar the same song may sound totally different, when played on two different instruments. There can also be quite a difference between one instrument and another that have similar tunings.


Some notable mbira players include Dumisani Maraire, Ephat Mujuru, Forward Kwenda, Stella Chiweshe, Chartwell Dutiro, Beauler Dyoko, Cosmas Magaya, Hakurotwi Mude, and Tute Chigamba.

Mbira Nyunga Nyunga

The Mbira Nyunga Nyunga is similar in construction to the Mbira Dzavadzimu, but has fewer keys, in two rows, and no hole through which to place one's pinkie. It is typically played by holding both sides of the instrument in one's hands.

Dr.Joseph Howard, author of "Drums In the Americas", asserts that "Mbira is the instrument most typical of Africa", in that it is only found in places where Africans reside in large numbers. As evidence of this versions of this instrument exist in most African countries, including Ethiopia, where it is known as "Tom", and throughout west Africa, where it is known as Agidigbo among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Uboh among the Ibo of Nigeria and Kongoma in Sierra Leone. It is also found in the Americas where is is variously known as "Church & Clap", "Rhumba Box", "Jazz Jim", "Basse Box" and marímbula in Jamaica and the Caribbean Islands.

Mbira Music

To a westerner, the melody may appear to be extremely repetitive, or at least cyclic, but upon closer listening there are minute variations, suggestive of the minimalist movement in western music (for example Philip Glass, et al).

As with all African music rhythm plays an important part, even with an instrument with the melodic capabilities of Mbira. The rhythms are quite intricate and to some extent seem to dictate the form of the melody.

Interest in the mbira has increased in the west and some musicians are experimenting with the sound, rhythm and modes of the instrument. Groups of western mbira players have developed their own fusion style of playing, that is neither totally African nor completely western.

Traditional Shona Mbira music is typically composed to two different parts, the Kushaura and the Kutsinhira.


  • Drums in the Americas. Howard, Joseph H. (New York: Oak Publications, 1967)
  • The soul of mbira : music and traditions of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Paul Berliner (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1978)
  • My people : the incredible writings of Credo Vusa'mazulu Mutwa. Mutwa, Credo Vusa'mazulu (Johannesburg : Blue Crane Books, 1969)


  • Nonesuch Explorer Series 79703-2, Zimbabwe: The African Mbira: Music of the Shona People (2002). Liner notes by Robert Garfias (1971).
  • Nonesuch Explorer Series 79704 Zimbabwe: The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People (1973).

External links