Instrument Profile: Mbira

Jason Beauregard

The Shona people of Zimbabwe have many secrets and many great traditions. Perhaps their greatest in the musical sense is the mbira, which is thought to be originated around a thousand years ago in the region of Africa now known as Zimbabwe, first played by the Zezuru tribe. This remarkable instrument hailing from the southeast African state is part of the idiophone family of instruments, as classified by the Hornbostel- Sachs system.  It is known as a plucked idiophone, because it is played primarily with the thumbs as well as the index finger on the right hand. At first blush it is a rather ridiculous looking instrument. It is comprised of 12 to 28 metallic keys, each of different length to omit a different frequency or pitch. The mbira is often times played inside a hollow gourd or bowl for the purpose of resonance, thus amplifying the surprisingly quiet instrument for public appearances. Mbira dzavadzimu, the official name of the national instrument of Zimbabwe, is roughly translated as “the voice of the ancestors”, and rightfully so because of the longstanding history and kinship the people have shared with the instrument.

The predominant music of the region, known as mbira music, is traditionally played by more than one mbira performer. It is typically composed of several players using polyrhythm, a technique in which several different rhythms are played at the same time.  An interesting way of explaining polyrhythm to those not so musically inclined is as follows: imagine a very tall father walking with his short son. They both take their first step at the same time; however the son must take more steps to stay with his father, so their steps don’t match but relative to each other the two are constant and at the end of the walk they end at the same time. Many different manifestations of this instrument have been invented by hundreds of different societies around the world, including the kalimba.

For more information about the mbira, visit where a great deal of history can be found, as well as mbira retailers.To hear some interesting performances, follow the links below. Keep your ears open, you’re bound to hear something you’ll like.