Instruments | Mbira | Percussion

Like the jew’s harp and mechanical music box, the African mbira or thumb piano is a lamellaphone, in which the sound is produced by plucking metal tongues or plates.

A mbira has between 22 and 52 thin metal tongues, arranged in two or three layers on a hardwood soundboard. The longest tongues are placed in the middle of the instrument, with the higher notes radiating outwards. The soundboard acts as an amplifier and is usually placed inside a large gourd (deze), which is the resonator. Bottle caps or snail shells are often attached to the gourd or the resonator to create a buzzing noise as the mbira is played. Some mbira have the tongues attached to a wooden box, which acts as soundboard and resonator. Each metal tongue is plucked with the thumb and first finger on each hand. Several mbira players may play together in an ensemble, and are often accompanied by drums and rattles (hosho).

Mbira Music

The mbira is played at religious ceremonies and social gatherings. The Shona people of Zimbabwe traditionally believe that mbira music brings the world of the living in contact with the world of the spirits. Skilled mbira players, or vana gwenyambira, play to persuade the spirits to transform members of the community into mediums, so that the spirits can counsel the living to protect them. Mbira music is cyclic and is constructed from several layers of interlocking melodic ideas, which combine to create the mesmeric effect believed to call the spirits.

Introduction | Percussion Instruments
Instruments | Bells | Percussion

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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