Posts Tagged ‘mbira’
Simply beautiful, the finger harp is an integral part of African music culture that originated in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Africa it is known as the mbira, but this double-consonant word confuses many westerners, so in America it is translated into the finger harp; the name explaining the purpose of this lovely instrument.
The finger harp is played by a single musician; however it is rarely performed as a solo. More frequently, it is played as a feature of other musicians, vocalists and dancers.
If there is one word to describe the music of Africa, it is variety, and the options exist with the same instrument. For example, the finger harp is not a uniformly designed instrument. There are 33-note versions played by performers in Zimbabwe and smaller types of 6 notes the Bushmen of Kalahari use.
And it’s not just the size that varies; the name itself changes from region to region in Africa. It is mbira in Zimbabwe, but the same instrument is called the Kalimba in Kenya, the ikembe in Rwanda and likembe in the Congo.
Other names include the sanza, sansa, gourd piano, marimba, marimbula, and thumb piano. You can see why westerners are confused by this instrument as it is difficult to keep up with the names!
The kalimba was actually introduced by an Englishman named Hugh Tracey who moved to Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, to assist in the running of a tobacco farm. Tracey created a diatonic instrument similar to the mbira in the 1960s which became popular around the world.
Translated, the Kalimba means “little music” and it’s perfect for playing harmony with both thumbs. You’ll find this instrument throughout the world, particularly the Middle East, Asia and North and South America.
Regardless of how it is called, the kalimba, or mbira or finger harp has an important place in the culture of African music.
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.
Click on the picture of Samite at the lower right to order his new CD, “My Music World”.
We received a review from Samite regarding his support for a new CD sampler of music from Zimbabwe. We encourage you to check it out and enjoy more African music.
“I recently had the opportunity to listen to a new CD from Zimbabwe titled:
It is a compilation CD by talented musicians from a place that we were used to hearing only bad news about. It is very exciting to learn that while the politicians in Zimbabwe have yet to figure out how to run their country and feed their people, musicians remain creative and feed their countrymen’s souls.
The songs vary from reggae rhythms to intricate arrangements with marimbas, mbira (what East Africans call kalimbas) and flutes.
One of my very favorite musicians today is Oliver Mtukudzi and when I heard that his daughter Selmor Mtukudzi was one of the featured artists in this compilation, I could not wait to hear it.
I was not disappointed when I heard her track “Mhembwe Rudzi.” I think she is as talented as her father is. While the songs on this CD do not necessarily go well with each other, it does not matter because I think it is a great sampler of what we can expect to hear from Wide World Artists and especially from Zimbabwe.
I encourage you to check them out at www.wideworldartists.com.
The translation of Kalimba is little music, and it is a perfect blend of African sounds adapted to include Western tastes.
Developed in the 1960s by Englishman Hugh Tracey, it is often referred to as the thumb piano for allowing the musician to play harmony using both thumbs.
Tracey relocated from Great Britain to Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, to assist in the operation of a tobacco farm owned by his brother in the 1920’s. While there, he became fascinated by the African music culture, particularly an instrument called the mbira. Tracey invented the modern Kalimba based on the construction of the mbira.
There is some cross-pollination of these instruments in Africa. In Zimbabwe the population still refers to the instrument as the mbira and in Kenya they say Kalimba. To further confuse the issue, in Rwanda and the Congo the instrument is called an ikembe. Less common names are the sanza, marimba and marimbula.
Perhaps the most generic name for this marvelous instrument is the thumb piano, gourd piano and finger harp.
Essentially, the Kalimba, pronounced ka-leem’-buh, is a wooden box with metal keys called lamellas adhered to the top. The keys are sometimes made from cane while the box is made from an African hardwood called kyat.
Traditional African self-reliance has some of these beautiful instruments fashioned out of bicycle spokes, spoon handles or discarded wire that is shaped into the necessary length for plucking. These strings are plucked with the two thumbs or a combination of thumbs and fingers.
The strings or keys are 20 to 24 in number, placed on two bars on the sound box. The loose ends of the keys are various lengths which provide the different pitches. Like any stringed instrument of the West, a longer string produces a lower pitch and a shorter string accords a higher pitch.
Our friend Samite is a master of Kalimba music, so why not invite his artistry into your home?
The Soul of Africa music is unique to the African continent but which everyone can enjoy. Prepare yourself for a different experience that is grounded in folklore, mythology, Gods and legends.
The first thing you will notice about African music is the predominant rhythm. It is based on tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution and it will make you want to dance. In fact, dance is very much a part of the African musical experience. African music is intended to link the things you can see, with the unseen and dance brings these unseen visions some clarity.
African music has strong percussive elements and these can be produced with various instruments reflective of their societies; friction sticks, clappers, cymbals and rattles, commonly used to create a beat.
Some populations rely on xylophones and the mbira, a musical instrument from sub-Saharan Africa that has been a part of African musical culture for 800 years. Often referred to as a thumb-piano, its metal strips are plucked or depressed to create both rhythm and melody and to accompany a singer and provide a rhythmic component.
Of course, conventional drums create rhythm too, as well as, bells and even clay pots. African music has always capitalized on what was available. You will enjoy the beauty of this instrument as played by Samite on several of his recordings.
Some African societies emphasis percussion more than melody, but others rely on the melody instead. For these cultures, the mbira is seen primarily as a melodic instrument. Interestingly, in some societies the use of the mbira is restricted to Chiefs or other traditional hierarchical figures, particularly if the instrument is being used for a religious purpose.
There is much to enjoy about African music; an art form born of ancient mystery and wonder, and one which is readily shared with the world. Thanks to modern technology, the Soul of Africa can be a part of your music library too.