The first recorded instance of a Thumb Piano dates back to the 16th century, but it’s accepted that they’ve been around a hell of a lot longer than that. Important to realize, the mbira is the national instrument of Zimbabwe. Where it holds an important place in all spiritual, political and artistic matters of the Shona People.
So, most people belonging to that culture will have some working knowledge of the instrument since childhood. Even if they aren’t musicians themselves. For instance, it’s the middle of the night in the wilds of Zimbabwe. You’ve been invited to attend a sacred ceremony. The dancing and costumes are fascinating and exotic.
The Shona People gathered around you are chanting and meditating. Underneath it all, music is playing – music you’ve never heard before. It is bell-like, repetitious, rattling, buzzing, and strangely hypnotic. You’re listening to the mbira (pronounced ‘um-BEER-a’).
Thumb Piano is a generic, westernized name for a range of different sub-Saharan lamellophones (instruments played by plucking tuned fixed metal tines or keys). Usually, thumb piano refers to either the mbira or its more modernized variant, the kalimba.
Is it a Thumb Piano or Mbira?
The mbira is an instrument from the African continent. It is sometimes called the ‘thumb piano’ because it is played with the thumbs and one finger. The mbira is made of 22 to 28 metal keys attached to a hardwood soundboard called the gwariva. Usually, placed inside a large gourd to amplify the sound.
The metal keys are plucked with both thumbs and the forefinger of the right hand. The thumbs pluck downward on the keys. The forefinger plucks upward from beneath the keys. Traditionally, the keys were made from iron ore smelted from rocks.
Today it is common for the keys to be made of recycled materials, such as sofa springs, car spokes, or cans. Other recycled items, such as shells, beads, and bottle caps, are attached to the soundboard to create a buzzing sound.
Traditional mbira music is cycles of polyrhythmic, interlocking patterns. Typically a composition will consist of 48 beats, organized into four phrases of 12 beats. Time signatures are ambiguous (mbira pieces often seem to merge 3/4 and 4/4 time). And are tricky to transcribe as the traditional instruments would often not be created to specific tunings or scales. Rather, would vary in frequencies from mbira to mbira.
Is it a Mbira or the Shona?
The mbira is found throughout the African continent, but it is associated most closely with the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The Shona have played the mbira for more than a thousand years. It is mentioned in their literature and is a part of their worship and rituals. The Shona name for the instrument is mbira dzavadzimu, which means ‘mbira of the ancestors.’
The mbira is played for important Shona ceremonies, such as the bira, an all-night spirit possession ceremony. For these ceremonies, the mbira is accompanied by hand-clapping, singing, and percussion instruments. The Shona believe that the music of the mbira connects them to their ancestors. Mbira pervades all aspects of Shona’s traditional culture, both sacred and secular.
Mbira is required to ask these spirits to bring rain during a drought, stop rain during floods, and bring clouds when crops are damaged by the sun. In addition, Mbira is also used to chase away harmful spirits, and to heal both physical and mental illness, with or without n’anga (traditional diviner/herbalist).
Equally important, Mbira is also used for personal meditation and personal prayers to the spirits. Not to mention, the mbira is included in celebrations of all kinds. Including weddings, installation of new chiefs, and, in modern times. Whereby, it’s used in government events such as international conferences.
What is the Role of a Thumb Piano player?
To be a gwenyambira, a professional mbira player accepted by the ancestor spirits to play at their ceremonies, is a role of service. When called at 3 am to come to play mbira at a ceremony where other players have failed to bring the spirit called, the gwenyambira must go.
Humility is required, as the gwenyambira is merely a tool of the spirits, who enable him/her to play their music for them. Ego about one’s playing ability is not allowed – such an insult to the spirits could result in the musician partially or completely losing the ability to play mbira.
As an example, Ephat Mujuru, Garikayi Tirikoti and Stella Chiweshe are three of the biggest names in 20th-century mbira. In western rock, pop and jazz, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Jens Lekman, Imogen Heap, Björk, King Crimson, and Pharoah Sanders have sprinkled thumb pianos on their work. Here is a Spotify Playlist.
The act that has transcended the usual “world music” western ghettoization of indigenous music though are the brilliant Konono No 1. In that case, whose grids of homemade electric likembé, amplified through the buzzing, distorted megaphones, almost verge on ancient, African techno. The Congolese groups are more likely to be found at All Tomorrow’s Parties than Womad.
Types of Mbira in Zimbabwe
According to the Mbira Website, it primarily addresses the most commonly played mbira of the Shona people, called by some academics ‘mbira dzavadzimu’ (mbira of the ancestor spirits). It may also be called ‘mbira dzemhondoro’, ‘mbira dzemidzimu’, ‘mbira huru’, ‘nhare’, and mbira dzemakombwe.’ However, it is primarily called simply ‘mbira’.
In Zimbabwe, the word ‘mbira’ is used for this type of mbira, and the same word is used for the general category of instruments with plucked metal keys on a soundboard.
Other types of Shona mbira currently, but more rarely, found in Zimbabwe include the njari, matepe, mbira dzavaNdau, and the karimba (also called nyunganyunga or Kwanongoma mbira). Developed for elementary and secondary school curriculum use at Kwanongoma College, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in the 1960s.
During Zimbabwe’s colonial period (when it was known as Southern Rhodesia and then Rhodesia), missionaries taught that mbira was evil. Particularly, due to its association with ancestor spirits. Thus, that period saw a decline in the popularity of mbira due to repression of traditional religion.
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Since independence in 1980, mbira (thumb piano) has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity and is now considered the national instrument of Zimbabwe. The Shona Mbira is becoming known around the world, due to tours by both traditional and non-traditional mbira players. Like the Zimbabwean electric bands which include the instrument, and organizations such as MBIRA.
In Zimbabwe, traditional musicians remind their communities that mbira is played to encourage the spirits which protect the land and people of Zimbabwe. Neither mbira nor the spirits should be neglected if Zimbabweans wish to enjoy health and prosperity. Traditional ceremonies continue to this day, though not all Zimbabweans participate in them.
While the vast majority of Shona mbira players have been men, today more and more women and girls are playing. Having said that, I hope you have an idea as to you should consider listening or even playing a thumb piano. But, if you’ll have additional contributions, suggestions or even questions, please Contact Us. We’ll provide you with more blog research articles that best caters to your needs.