The Shona Mbira

The Shona Mbira

By Motsane Getrude Seabela, Curator Anthropology, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

Figure 1: Mbira, attached to a gourd resonator (Photograph by author).

The mbira, also known as mbila sansa, kilembe, likembe, dipela or thumb piano is an ancient musical instrument closely associated with the natural landscape in which the Shona people traditionally dwelled. The mbira was apparently bestowed upon the Shona by the Great Rainmaker and its sound reminds the Shona of this watery heritage by closely imitating rain or running water. The mbira is also made from elements in nature, from a block of wood with a number of metal keys attached to the surface and played within a gourd resonator or on its own. The metal keys were often recycled agricultural metals initially smelted from the specific mineral. Thus, each component of this object links it to natural resources of the land. Because of its organic nature, the gourd too, connects the instrument with nature and the close ties to traditional practices in a Shona household, such as cooking, carrying water and storage. Before colonisation, the mbira was regarded as a sacred instrument, especially among the Zezuru people of central Mashonaland region surrounding the capital Harare (Zimbabwe). The advent of Christianity resulted in the indigenous people demonising the mbira instrument as it was associated with profane music.

The mbira is a type of lamellaphone (any of a family of musical instruments) unique to Africa and is widely played across the continent. However, the Shona mbira is regarded as highly developed in the class of lamellaphones and the music richly complex and important in indigenous religious life in Zimbabwe. It is so because the mbira type of instrument has been played for over 600 years.

Figure 2: Mbira and gourd resonator (Photograph by author).

There are at least five distinct types of mbira played by the Shona people. Each type consists of one or more rows of different sized metal tongues (or keys) mounted on a wooden soundboard. The keys are struck with the thumbs and forefingers, and the instrument is propped inside a gourd calabash resonator to amplify the sound. Nowadays the resonator is often made with fibreglass. The instrument is played by lightly striking the loose ends of the rods with the thumbs’ nails, which the players allow to grow long for that purpose. When the iron rods are shaken and the blows resounding above the hollow of the bowl, a gentle harmony of accordant sounds is produced.

Apart from differences in the number and layout of keys, the Shona mbira also differs in their repertoires and performance contexts as well as their regional distribution. By the 1960s, the mbira had drawn attention both in and outside Zimbabwe. Musicians such as Beauler Dyoko, Ephat Mujuru, Thomas Mapfumo and Stella Chiweshe are renowned for being instrumental in popularising and developing the range of mbira music on international stages.


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  • Muranda, R. 2010. The Nhare Mbira Music Trends in Zimbabwe since 1980. Muziki. 7(1): 77-78.
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