The Finger Harp is known by many names in Africa: mbira, kalimba and ikembe, though various regions of the continent use one name more than others.
This beautiful sounding instrument traces its roots to the 1920s and businessman Hugh Tracey who emigrated from England to Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. He came to assist his brother with a tobacco farm however he was quickly enchanted by the local culture.
Music was particularly intriguing to Tracey. By the 1960s he created a kind of mbira called the kalimba which became popular throughout the world. The performer is able to use both thumbs to play harmony and for that reason, the kalimba, translated as “little music”, is popular in the West. The kalimba is also played in Asia, the Middle East and South and North America because of its ease of use.
The mbira is similar. Like the kalimba it uses wood and strings to produce sound. The mbira has metal tongues called lamellas on top. The sound box itself if made of wood or gourd, and demonstrating the industrious spirit of the African people, the metal keys are sometimes make from old mattress spring wire, bicycle spokes or the handles of spoons.
Sound is produced by plucking the strings with the thumbs, or thumbs and fingers. It is common to find holes drilled into the sides of the box so the musician can vary the resonance and sound by blocking the holes.
All of the finger harps produce a sound that is well suited for diverse melodies and rhythms. There are usually two melodic parts in the music created for this instrument; a kushaura and a kutsinhira, and the sound is typically a pattern of four 12 beat phrases.
The Finger Harp is often played along with other performers who clap and sing, making this instrument a joyful and soulful expression of African sound.
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