In African music, the mbira (also known as likembe, mbila, thumb piano, mbira huru, mbira njari, mbira nyunga nyunga, sansu, zanzu, karimbao, kalimba, or—between the late 1960s and early 1970s—sanza) is a musical instrument that consists of a wooden board with attached staggered
metal keys. It is often fitted into a resonator. In Eastern and Southern Africa, there are many kinds of mbira, usually accompanied by the hosho. Among the Shona people there are three that are very popular. The mbira is usually classified as part of the lamellaphone family. It is also part of the idiophones family of musical instruments.
Both Joseph H. Howard, owner of the largest collection of drums and ancillary folk instruments in the Americas, and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji argue that the mbira is thoroughly African, being found only in areas populated by Africans or their descendants.
Mbira came to prominence after the worldwide stage performance and recordings of Thomas Mapfumo, whose music is based on and includes the mbira; the work of Dumisani Maraire, who brought marimba and karimba music to the US Pacific Northwest; Ephat Mujuru, who was one of the pioneer teachers of mbira in the US; as well as the writings and recordings of Zimbabwean musicians made by Paul Berliner.
In Shona music, the mbira dzavadzimu ("voice of the ancestors", national instrument of Zimbabwe) is a musical instrument that has been played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe for thousands of years. The mbira dzavadzimu is frequently played at religious ceremonies and social gatherings called mabira (sing. "bira").
A typical mbira dzavadzimu consists of between 22 and 28 keys constructed from hot- or cold-forged metal affixed to a hardwood soundboard (gwariva) in three different registers—two on the left, one on the right.
While playing, the little finger of the right hand is placed through a hole in the bottom right corner of the soundboard, stabilizing the instrument and leaving thumb and index finger of the right hand open to stroke the keys in the right register from above and below. The fingers of the left hand stabilize the left side of the instrument, with most fingers reaching behind the instrument. Both registers on the left side of the instrument are played with the left thumb and sometimes the left forefinger.
Bottle caps, shells, or other objects ("machachara") are often affixed to the soundboard to create a buzzing sound when the instrument is played. In a traditional setting, this sound is considered extremely important, as it is believed to attract the ancestral spirits.
During a public performance, an mbira dzavadzimu is frequently placed in a deze (calabash resonator) to amplify its sound.
The mbira dza vadzimu is very significant in Shona religion and culture, considered a sacred instrument by natives. It is usually played to facilitate communication with ancestral spirits. Within the Shona tradition, the mbira may be played with paired performers in which the kushaura, the caller, leads the performed piece as the kutsinhira, the responder, "interlocks" a subsequent part.
The Ritual is known as the Bira. During these all night ceremonies, people call upon the spirits to answer questions, the variations of notes in an Mbira piece aid the participants by going into a trance in which it is said in shona culture aid the spirits in taking over the participants body
Mbira music, like much of the sub-Saharan African music traditions is based on cross-rhythm. The following example is from the kushuara part of the traditional mbira piece "Nhema Mussasa." The left hand plays the ostinato "bass line," while the right hand plays the upper melody. The composite melody is an embellishment of the 3:2 cross-rhythm (also known as a hemiola).
Kushuara mbira part for "Nhema Mussasa." About this sound Play (help·info)
Tunings vary from family to family, referring to relative interval relationships and not to absolute pitches. The most common tuning is Nyamaropa, similar to the western Mixolydian mode. Names may also vary between different families. For example, Garikayi Tirikoti has developed a "mbira orchestra" that has seven different tunings, each starting on a different interval of the same seven-note scale, where it is possible to play all instruments in a single performance. The seven tunings that Garikayi uses are: Bangiza, Nyabango, Nhemamusasa, Chakwi, Taireva, Mahororo, and Mavembe (all of which are also names of traditional songs save for Mavembe and Nyabango). The closest to what is commonly named "Nyamaropa" is his "Nhemamusasa" tuning.
Historically, mbira tunings have not mapped exactly onto Western scales; it is not unusual for a seven-note sequence on a mbira to be "stretched" over a greater range of frequencies than a Western octave and for the intervals between notes to be different from those in a Western scale. Tunings have often been idiosyncratic with variations over time and from one player to another. A mbira key produces a rich complex of overtones that varies from one instrument to another depending on its maker's intentions and accidents of fabrication, such that some instruments simply sound better when some notes of a familiar tuning are pushed. With the increased popularity of the mbira in North America, Europe, and Japan in recent decades, Zimbabwean mbira makers have tended to tune their instruments more uniformly for export, but much variation is still found among mbira in their homeland.
Common names for tunings are
Nyamaropa (Mixolydian mode) (considered the oldest and most representative in Shona culture) It emphasizes togetherness through music, creating polyrhythms through having two Mbira players at once, having singing styles accompany an Mbira such as Huro (High emotional notes that are at the top of a singers range) & Mahon'era (a soft breathy voice at the bottom of the singers range) or both elements. A single Mbira is considered incomplete for a performance.
Dambatsoko (Ionian mode), played by the Mujuru family. The name refers to their ancestral burial grounds.
Dongonda, usually a Nyamaropa tuned mbira with the right side notes the same octave as the left (an octave lower than usual).
Katsanzaira (Dorian mode), the highest pitch of the traditional mbira tunings. The name means "the gentle rain before the storm hits".
Mavembe (also: Gandanga) (Phrygian mode), Sekuru Gora claims to have invented this tuning at a funeral ceremony. The mourners were singing a familiar song with an unfamiliar melody and he went outside the hut and tuned his mbira to match the vocal lines. Other mbira players dispute that he invented it.
Nemakonde (Phrygian mode), same musical relationship as the mavembe, but the nemakonde tuning is a very low pitched version.
Saungweme (flattened whole tone, approaching 7 tone equal temperament).
Mbira Nyunga Nyunga
Jeke (Jack) Tapera introduced the mbira nyunga nyunga in the 1960s from Tete province of Mozambique to Kwanongoma College of African music (now United College of Music) in Bulawayo. Two keys were then added to make fifteen (Chirimumimba, 2007), in two rows. The mbira nyunga nyunga is similar in construction to the mbira dzavadzimu, but has no hole in the soundboard. Key pitch radiates out from the center, rather than from left to right.
Zimbabwe's Dumisani Maraire originated mbira nyunga nyunga number notation. The upper row keys (from left) are keys 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 while the bottom row keys are notated as 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15. Maraire brought awareness of this instrument to the United States when he came to the University of Washington as a visiting artist from 1968-1972.
Recently a Midlands State University (Gweru, Zimbabwe) lecturer in the department of music and musicology has suggested a letter notation; the upper keys as (from first left upper key) E, D, C, F, C, D, and E and the lower or bottom keys as (from the first lower key) A, G, F, A, F, C, D, and E. But the Maraire number notation has remained the internationally accepted system (Chirimumimba, 2007).
Mark Holdaway of Kalimba Magic has introduced a graphic form of tablature for the karimba, and traditional karimba tunes as well as modern songs and new compositions and exercises are available in this tablature.
Traditional Zimbabwean mbira masters
Dumisani and Chiwoniso Maraire
Jimmy Chifamba and Cypren Vambe
Nyamasvisva and Mawungira eNharira
Other mbira players
Glenn Kotche of Wilco
Jamie Muir of King Crimson
Kurai Mubaiwa of ZimbaMoto and Zhambai Trio
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails
Maurice White of Earth, Wind, & Fire
Jacob Mafuleni (Njari and Dzavadzimu)
Hector Rufaro Mugani
Hope Ruvimbo Masike
Felix Simba Machiridza Gudo Guru
Malvern Potwayo Yotinhira Arts
Taku Mafika Mob Entertainment
War Musambasi Yotinhira Arts
Fidelis Mherembi Yotinhira Arts
Emily Bryant of The Beautiful Word
Spencer Muzipasi (Zim Afrostics)
Makaita Theresa Muteta
Hector Rufaro Mugani on Mbira Chikwata.263 (Mbira-Punk)
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). Produced by Paul Berliner
Konono N°1 Congotronics (2004). See also the corresponding Amazon listing. Contemporary recording of traditional Congolese sanza mbira (i.e. likembe) from Kinshasa, played with [diy] amplification, and gained the attention of the western world music press in 2005
Musical instruments 2: (LP) Reeds (Mbira). (1972) The Music of Africa series. 1 LP disc. 33⅓ rpm. mono. 12 in. Recorded by Hugh Tracey.
Kaleidophone, KMA 2.
Mbira Music of Rhodesia, Performed by Abram Dumisani Maraire. (1972). Seattle: University of Washington Press, Ethnic Music Series. Garfias, R. (Ed.). 1 LP disc. 33⅓ rpm. mono. 12 in. UWP-1001. This disc features Maraire exclusively on Nyunga Nyunga mbira. A 12-page booklet by Maraire is included, describing the background, composition, and performance of nyunga-nyunga mbira music
A mbira was played by Jamie Muir in the introduction of King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part One"
Penguin Cafe Orchestra used an mbira in a cover of the traditional Nhemamusasa retitled as the English translation, Cutting Branches For a
Njuzu Mbira: Traditional Music of Zimbabwe (30. May 2003) released by Njuzu Mbira / CD Baby
Stella Chiweshe: Through Mbira (16. November 2009) release by Anhrefn Records / Cadiz
Stella Chiweshe: Talking Mbira (11. June 2002) released by Piranha / Zebralution
Tinashe Chidanyika: Sounds of the African Mbira(1. January 2009) released by ARCMUSIC / RoyaltyShare
Mawungira eNharira: Chinamanenji (2006) released by Record & Tape Promotions (RTP) / CD and Cassette
Mawungira eNharira: Ndodyiwa Nemakava (May 2010) released by Gramma Records / CD
Hope masike:Hope(May 2009)www.cdbaby.com/CD/hopemasike
Kurai Mubaiwa: www.zimbamoto.com www.zhambai.com
Forward Kwenda: Svikiro - Meditations From An Mbira Master (1997) Released by Shanachie Records
Hundreds of field recordings are available from MBIRA the non-profit: The MBIRA Catalog
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