The mbira is a group of instruments with plucked metal keys on a wooden soundboard. These instruments are widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa, and seem to have originated around the Zambezi river:  the countries of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia have many different varieties, including the most complex instruments of this type found anywhere in the world. This types covered on this site range from 15 to 30 keys, and are played with either both thumbs and the right index finger, or both thumbs and both index fingers. These are by no means the only types, and in fact there are probably over a dozen lesser-known varieties in these four countries alone, but there is very little information available at present on most of the other types.

In a performance setting, whether religious or secular, the mbira is normally amplified by a gourd resonator of some kind, usually a large round one that the instrument is wedged into, called a deze. Both the deze and the mbira itself typically have shells,  bottlecaps, or metal beads attached to give a buzzing quality to the sound, which can range from a faint rustling to almost sounding like a tambourine. Mbira music usually involves a lot of singing and dancing, both on the part of the performers and the audience, as well as a rhythmic accompaniment of either drums or rattles or both. Some varieties of quieter mbiras are also played alone or to accompany a single singer.

A note on the use of the word mbira: Since these instruments are played by many different tribes and sub-tribes, speaking many different languages and dialects, there is no one universal word for the broader category of plucked metal instruments. The word mbira is used by Shona-speaking people both to refer to a specific type (sometimes called the mbira dzavadzimu) and, somewhat, as an umbrella term for all the different types. Hence, mbira has become the most well-known generic term internationally, and that’s why we’re using it in this way on the site. Ethnomusicologists call these instruments lamellophones, some Westerners call them “thumb-pianos”, and there are many other local terms for the instrument or its equivalent in different parts of Africa.

Different Mbira types:

Mbira dzaVadzimu

Matepe dzaMhondoro

Njari dzaManjanja


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