Learn about Mbira – A traditional Zimbabwean music instrument

Visually African
Visually African
Learn about Mbira - A traditional Zimbabwean music instrument

Its always scary to try and gauge how much personal information you should put down in your blog, or any publicly available platform. Even though I’m torn I shall start off by talking about my grandfather. He was a tall, slim man. A very tall man! I’m also tall, but he was really tall. Other than his height and general charisma, I also vividly remember him being a mbira player. The mbira is an ancestral Zimbabwean musical instrument that has been passed down through the passage of time, for countless Zimbabwean generations. My grandfather would play it for me on the distant occasions that we were able to travel and visit him.

Sample sound of someone playing mbira
Photo credit: (they sell, tune and repair mbira)

Online you will find some Chinese websites that sell “thumb pianos” and other mbira-looking commercial things. The original, tribal, ancestral mbira has no substitute. In both sound and cultural significance. A lot of Zimbabweans (dare I say – all Zimbabweans) even cringe at the use of the term “thumb piano”. The mbira is not a piano, it’s a mbira… and it has always been a mbira. Whether in French, English, or Shona.. it should just remain – mbira.

When my now-late grandfather used to play his mbira, I used to be the one in charge of the shakers… which is a whole ‘nother instrument. One that was easy enough for a six-year-old boy to handle. He would play and sit barefooted, his face filled with encouragement… as I shook, and shook, and shook my wrists away in musical harmony. His fingers were long, dry, and cracked (probably from not only age) but the metal on those mbira rods which I loved. While shaking my shakers, my eyes and mind would get pulled into a trance. Both of them glued, to the sight of his tall, dexterous fingers. Yes, tall. As they jumped from one rod to another, each finger was so quick and agile… it might as well have been its own person. Its own tall, thin person. One who lived in rhythm with his equally tall, cracked, dry neighbours. A true working man’s hands.. and he could use that truth, to play away any man’s blues, and sorrow.

On 21 May 2020 Google had a doodle, animated clips and game to celebrate mbira

Six-year-old me never had the chance to record a video of this “gwenyambira” in action! A word that means expert mbira player, though in some outdated slang-circles the same word could refer to “the one who holds all the cards” kind of like a puppet-master. By my experiences, all three definitions are not wrong. The next two videos should give you some kind of idea of how the instrument feels. Just a rough idea, one that doesn’t beat playing mbira with your wise, old, grandfather. Once you have sampled enough feel free to move on to the next passage of my post.

This is a deeply traditional, beloved Zimbabwean song
Hope Masike is one of Zimbabwe’s most popular young players

Mbira lessons

As I now wrap off this article, I want to leave you with some additional info and beginner’s tutorials on how to play mbira. The second last video on this post, is a very basic. Super-easy to follow tutorial on one of the most popular traditional mbira songs: “Nhema Musasa”. While the next video does an excellent job at teaching you some facts and techniques of this beloved Zimbabwean music instrument.

Learn about mbira and how the chords work

In the video below, you can easily pick up your own mbira and follow along! Its a truly excellent beginner’s lesson, with perfect speed and easy to follow chords. For those that are now itching to buy and own your very-own authentic Zimbabwean mbira. I recommend buying from the Mbira Centre Website you can also email me using the contact button at the top of this website. I would not mind putting you in contact with some Zimbabweans that make and sell authentic mbira.

Once you have your own mbira, the next video should be your first stop! Before you get disheartened by the slightly harder stuff. The good news is: places like Mbira Centre also sell video lessons, and do any tuning and repairs you might need done. Thank you so much for visiting my blog! Please follow me on Twitter and on Instagram.

Probably the easiest and most rewarding mbira tutorial ever

Written by Visually African

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