The Mbira

The Mbira or thumb piano is an African musical instrument consisting of a wooden board (often fitted with a resonator) with attached staggered metal tines, played by holding the instrument in the hands and plucking the tines with the thumbs. The mbira is usually classified as part of the lamellaphone family, and part of the idiophone family of musical instruments.

Various kinds of thumb pianos have existed in Africa for thousands of years. The tines were originally made of bamboo but over the years metal keys have been developed. The mbira appears to have been invented twice in Africa: a wood or bamboo-tined instrument appeared on the west coast of Africa about 3000 years ago, and metal-tined lamellophones appeared in the Zambezi River valley around 1,300 years ago. These metal-tined instruments traveled all across the continent and differentiated in their physical form and social uses as they spread. Kalimba-like instruments came to exist from the northern reaches of North Africa to the southern extent of the Kalahari Desert, and from the east coast to the west coast, though many or most groups of people in Africa did not possess mbiras. There were thousands of different tunings, different note layouts, and different instrument designs, but there is a hypothetical tuning and note layout of the original metal-tined instrument from 1,300 years ago.

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