13 Jun 2007


Posted by K Chikuse

The mbira is a Shona musical instrument consisting of a wooden board to which staggered metal keys have been attached. It is often fitted into a deze that functions as a resonator. Mbira performances are usually accompanied by hosho. Among the Shona there are three that are very popular.Mbira dzevadzimu (mbira of the ancestors) is often played at mapira(religious ceremonies and social gatherings). The traditional mbira dzavadzimu is usually made up of 22 keys on three different registers, two on the left and one on the right.


The mbira dzavadzimu is constructed from 22 to 28 strips of cold or hot forged metal of varying lengths affixed to a hardwood gwariva or soundboard. The gwariva has a hole in the bottom right corner through which the little finger of the right hand is placed while playing, allowing the right thumb and index finger to pluck the high notes from above and below the keys.There are usually several bottle caps, shells or other objects affixed to the soundboard (known as machachara) which create a buzzing sound when the instrument is played. This sound is known to attract the ancestral spirits.The keys are arranged in three rows, two on the left and one on the right. The bottom-left row contains the bass keys, the top-left row the middle-range keys and the right row a combination of the secondary bass keys and the high keys.

Religious and social significance
The Mbira dzevadzimu is very significant in Shona religion and culture, the national instrument of Zimbabwe, and is sacred.

With an enduring history of over 1,500 years, it has been traditionally played at both religious ceremonies and social gatherings, most often when communication with the ancestor spirits is desired or when necessary within the royal Shona Courts. However, the use of Mbira has diversified in modern times. In the ancient days songs for guidance, success in the hunt or battle, or for healing, were prevalent whilst today, one can listen to “new compositions” about love or politics.

Shona Songs

  • Karigamombe – means “undefeatable”
  • Mahororo – named after a small river in Zimbabwe, used to welcome hunters home after long hunts
  • Nyamaropa – literally means “meat and blood” and is considered among the oldest of mbira music and might be the first piece composed for the instrument. Although it may have originally been a song to prepare for battle, it is now considered a hunting song.
  • Nhemamusasa – A musasa is a shelter hunters would build while away from their homes. Like Nyamaropa this song was also once associated with war, but is now used as a hunting song.
  • Kuzanga – Chartwell Dutiro explains that the title means “to thread beads,” and states it is a “song about an old woman who stays in the forest alone, making beads for her ancestors. For the old woman, making beads for the ancestors is living happily and free from fear.”
  • Taireva – it expresses the importance of what is on your mind, and listening to your elders and is also a derivation of Nyamaropa
  • Vadzimu – This is a version of Nyamaropa played by the contemporary Shona musician Fabio Chivhanda. Also known more generically as “Nyamaropa yaChivhanda”
  • Bangidza or Bangiza – is understood to be a very ancient spiritual song and is reported to date back to the 14th-16th century, during the time of Munhumutapa.
  • Marenje – a song typically played on the gandanga (mavembe) tuning of the mbira (as is Ngozi ye Muroora).

I have added some samples of mbira music at the bottom. The clips are from the album Dzana Gwenyambira by Cape Town-based gwenyambira Kudakwashe Kangombe (africandrum2000@yahoo.co.uk).







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5 Responses to “Mbira”

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  4. Mbira DzaVadzimu does not only refer to the instrument but also the sound that comes from the instrument. The gwarivare is tuned in a particular way to produce that rhythm that play songs that invoke the ancestral spirits at a bira function. The common tuning for this being the Nyamaropa tuning if the mudzimu is ‘old’ (vakuru vepasichigare).Most of the mbira songs played today are generally for listening pleasure hence they are tuned in a way that produce sounds almost like electric guitars, and that’s no use for traditional ancestral biras. Most gwenyambiras from Mhondoro area still play this tune (e.g. Mhuri yekwaRwizi, Magaya etc). Please note that tuning requirements and tempo can also slightly vary from dunhu to dunhu but the generality is the same. There are so many tunings available today that are not playable at biras, but good for studio recordings and live shows.


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  5. Iyi ndiyo inonzi ndarama manje, kupfuura ngoda. ini hangu ndiri muShona, muzezuru anodada nenhaka yake. ndafara kwazvo. uwu ndiwo unonzi mumhanzi … vana vangu ndoda kuti vazive kuti kusati kwave nemisambo yamazuva ano, vakuru vakare vaidzirova dzino nembira dzavaigadzira nemaoko avo.



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