The mbira is an African instrument comprised of staggered metal keys attached to a wooden board. There are many different types of mbiras throughout South and East Africa. The above picture shows an mbira dzavadzimu, which is frequently placed in a deze (calabash resonator) for performances, as the deze amplifies the sound.The mbira dzavadzimu is the national instrument of Zimbabwe and is prevalent in Shona music. It is often played at both religious ceremonies and social gatherings.
The mbira dzavadzimu generally has between 22 and 28 keys in three different registers. It is played by placing the pinky of the right hand through a hole in the bottom right corner of the soundboard and stroking the keys with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. The left hand is used to stabilize the left side of the instrument, with the registers on the left side of the instrument played with the left thumb, and sometimes forefinger.
Bottle caps, shells, or other objects are often affixed to the soundboard of the instrument to create a buzzing sound during play. This sound is considered significant in a traditional setting because it is believed to attract ancestral spirits.
For more information on mbiras, you can visit the following links:
Tinotenda An introduction and guide to the mbira, mbira music, and Shona culture
The Game of Mbira thesis paper by Adrian Wagner Thesis paper on improvisation on the mbira dzavadzimu
My good friend Louise (also a SOAS postgrad grad!) has just finished up an internship at Songlines magazine and is launching her own online music magazine, called Musika. The writing team will include music enthusiasts, musicians, scholars, and producers writing about music they love, and sharing news, reviews, events and features for the public. Basically, it’s a terrific idea and I’m certain it will be a phenomenal site. And because yours truly has been invited to be a contributor, you will hear about it here as soon as the site is officially launched!