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.