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Throughout Africa, many other types of lamellophone are also used, like the mbira dzavadzimu , as solo instruments, or in groups of similar instruments to accompany singing or dancing, but other types of ensembles are not uncommon, including ensembles of different-sized lamellophones, or ensembles with xylophones or drums.


The mbira player usually sits, with the instrument, inside the resonator, resting in his lap.

The low and medium manuals of the mbira dzavadzimu are plucked by the thumbs, in a downward motion, and the high manual by the right hand index finger, in a upward motion. It may be played with bare hands, but during an extended performance (a common situation), this may be too hard on the players hands. In this case, ring-shaped plectrums fitted onto the end of the thumbs and finger are used to pluck the instrument.

Scales and tuning

Lamellophones typically use a 5-, 6-, or 7-pitch scale. (For comparison: major scales and minor scales have seven pitches.) Like most Shona mbira , the mbira dzavadzimu uses a 7-pitch scale. There are several different acceptable tunings for the notes of the scale. Interestingly, two differently-tuned instruments using the same fingering pattern are considered to be playing the same piece, even though the resulting sound is quite different, and mbira players sometimes switch to a differently-tuned instrument (but not during the same performance), in order to explore subtle differences in the possibilities for improvisation provided by the change in tuning.

Different instruments may vary not only in the relative tuning of the notes (their interval , or pitch distance from each other), but also in their absolute pitch (the actual frequency of the notes). Mbira players often speak of chuning , a catch-all term that includes how high or low the instrument sounds, and its timbre, as well as the tuning of the scale.

If it's not clear to you what chuning refers to, imagine that a Western instrument comes with a preset tuning that can only be changed with difficulty. You can choose between instruments tuned to a major scale , a melodic minor scale , or a harmonic minor scale . If you want the harmonic minor scale, you also have to choose: C harmonic minor, F harmonic minor, or A harmonic minor. Your choice will depend on whether you like the lower or higher sound, as well as which scale tuning you prefer.
Mbira tunings are, of course, not the same as major or minor scales tuned in equal temperament , but some traditional mbira tunings are quite close to the major scale. making it fairly easy to include them with Western-style instruments in a world music band. Other mbira tunings have intervals that are very different from Western scales.

Listening to mbira music

The average Western listener may want to begin exploring this instrument by listening to world music bands that include an mbira . Thomas Mapfumo is the most well-known musician to mix modern Western and traditional mbira music. Recordings of traditional music are also available. Some suggestions for the beginner listening to traditional mbira music:

  • Listen for the continuous repetition of the four phrases of the basic tune.
  • If voices are included, listen for the way the singers pick out various parts of the mbira line to emphasize. Listen for changes in both the vocal and mbira lines.
  • If there are no vocals, try to follow a line that is easy for you to hear (perhaps the "bass" line, for example). Listen for both changes in the notes used and more subtle changes in emphasis. Once you can hear these, try picking out a different line that may be harder for you to hear.
  • Try to hear the 12 beats both as "3 measures of 4" and as "4 measures of 3". This can be quite difficult for a Western listener, particularly if there are hosho playing, but it will give you some interesting insights into the music if you can do it.

Notes for classroom teachers

You can easily turn an introduction to the mbira into an interesting music/social studies cross-disciplinary unit for any grade level. Prepare a grade-appropriate lecture using the information above. If at all possible, include audio or video recordings of mbira music. At the time of this writing, there were plenty of mbira CDs available, as well as short videos available on the internet. There were also several websites that featured instructions for making a kalimba , a slightly ambitious, but very relevant activity. For lesson plans for other mbira -related activities, please see the gourd resonator activity in Grow a Musical Instrument and the vocable singing activity in Vocables .

Notes for composers and arrangers

Most of the world music artists who include lamellophones in their music are from cultures where these instruments are traditional. Because of the instruments' soft sounds and the wide variation in tuning, it is difficult for a composer who is unfamiliar with lamellophones to include one in an arrangement. Composers and arrangers who want to include an mbira may have the most success if they actively collaborate with a competent mbira player.

Acknowledgments and further reading

Paul Berliner's The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe (University of California Press, 1978) is a very thorough introduction to the instrument.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the University of Illinois School of Music and the Robert E. Brown Center for World Music in preparing this lesson.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Musical travels for children. OpenStax CNX. Jan 06, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10221/1.11
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