The Shona mbira dzavadzimu belongs to a family of instruments
referred to by ethnomusicologists as lamellophones – instruments
with plucked keys (or lamellae) attached to a soundboard (and often with
Lamellophones are found throughout Africa, with different
cultures using different names. Some examples include:
In the 1960s and 1970s sanza was the generic term
used to describe African members of the lamellophones family. Today the
term mbira is commonly used to describe instruments of this family.
But as Banning Eyre points out:
...it is important to differentiate these instruments.
The Shona mbira dzavadzimu in particular has both musical and ceremonial
aspects that are quite unique. To confuse all African lamellophones under
the generic term mbira, as many do, is similar to lumping together banjos,
lutes, mandolins, and all varieties of guitar under a single heading.
A lot gets lost in the mix.
Banning Eyre — www.afropop.org
By the way, you may very well have heard these instruments
inappropriately referred to as ”thumb pianos”. Leave it to Westerners
to need to apply their own terminology to another culture, describing
an African instrument by referring to a European one! As you can see,
these instruments are in no way “pianos.” (Nor are they played exclusively
with the thumbs.)
Likembe, Mbuti of the Congo
mbira dza ndau
mbira dza vadzimu
While the mbira we are presenting here is often referred
to as mbira
dzavadzimu — "the mbira of the ancestral spirits"— in
Zimbabwe this instrument is usually referred to as "mbira" – as distinct
from the nyunga nyunga, njari, matepe, etc. (Some traditional musicians
object to this name mbira dzavadzimu because they say that all mbiras
belong to the spirits.) The term mbira huru –"big" or "great"
mbira –is also used.
Karimba (Nyunga Nyunga) (Kwanongoma mbira)
The Kwanongoma mbira was introduced to Zimbabwe from Tete
province of Mozambique in the 1960s by Jeke Tapera, who brought it to Kwanongoma
College of African music in Bulawayo. Similar
in construction to the Mbira Dzavadzimu, the Nyunga Nyunga but has fewer
keys, in two rows, and no hole in the soundboard. Key pitches radiate out
from the center, rather than left to right. It is typically played by holding
both sides of the instrument in one's hands.
Dumisani Maraire brought awareness of this instrument, which
he called Nyunga Nunga, to the United States when he came to the University
of Washington as a visiting artist from 1968-1972. Ephat Mujuru, who performed
widely in the West and East, brought further awareness to the instrument
with his songs and storytelling.
Played primarily by the Kore-Kore people of northeastern Zimbabwe, the
Matepe is similar to the Mbira Dzavadzimu in construction, The matepe has
a different playing style than other mbira in that it uses both thumbs
and both index fingers. Four or five independent melodies are played simultaneously
in traditional matepe music.
Matepe – Chaka
From archeological and historical evidence it appears that
mbiras have been played in what is
now Zimbabwe for hundreds of years. Excavations at Inyanga and Niekerk
date mbiras as early as 1500. In 1589, a missionary, Father Dos Santos,
referred to mbira in his written descriptions of African
life, and in 1856 Charles and David Livingstone published the first known
drawings of mbira.