The Mbira ‘Dzavadzimu’ (directly translated as mbira of the ancestors) of the Zezuru group of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, Africa.
It consists of 22 to 28 metal keys mounted on a ‘gwariva’ (hardwood sound-board) made from the ‘mubvamaropa’ tree (Pterocarpus angolensis).
Although the metal keys were originally smelted directly from rock containing iron ore, now they maybe made from sofa springs, bicycle spokes, car seat springs, and other recycled steel materials. The mbira is usually placed inside a large calabash resonator (deze) to amplify it. A ‘mutsigo’ (stick) is used to wedge the mbira securely inside the ‘deze’. The mbira is played with the two thumbs stroking down and the right forefinger stroking up.
Either metal beads strung on a wire, or bottle tops or shells mounted on a metal plate, are placed on the lower portion of the mbira soundboard to add a buzz which varies from a soft hiss to a tambourine-like sound. Bottle tops or shells are also mounted on the deze to increase the buzz. The buzz is considered an essential part of the mbira sound, required to clear the mind of thoughts and worries so that the mbira music can fill the consciousness of the performers and listeners. The buzz adds depth and context to the clear tones of the mbira keys, and may be heard as whispering voices, singing, tapping, knocking, wind or rain.
Many different mbira tunings are used, according to personal preference. If the same sequence of keys is played, the music is considered to be the same mbira piece, even if played on instruments tuned with completely different intervals. For example, the ‘gandanga’ (outlaw) tuning, also known as ‘mavembe’ tuning, has a different interval relationship between keys than the more common ‘nyamaropa’ tuning. The pitch of an mbira is also a matter of personal preference, ranging from high to very deep. Each instrument has a range of three octaves, or slightly more.
Mbira and Healing
Mbira music has been used by the Shona people of Zimbabwe to heal physical and mental illness for more than a millennium. For the Shona, healing results from both the mbira’s sound and its power to summon ancestor spirits who influence the health of the living.
The Shona describe that, “when you listen to mbira, you are a spirit. Your thoughts and worries are gone and your body can heal”. The sound of mbira will affect you with or without your belief in its healing power.
The purifying, healing sound of mbira, which for a thousand years has been a sacred mystical music of the Shona people, is used in Zimbabwe to induce spirit possession trances, in traditional healing practices, for personal meditation, and in celebrations.
Mbira’s use in Shona Culture
Mbira(the name of both the instrument and the music) is mystical music which has been played for over a thousand years by certain tribes of the Shona people, a group which forms the vast majority of the population of Zimbabwe, and extends into Mozambique.
Mbira pervades all aspects of Shona culture, both sacred and secular. Its most important function is as a “telephone to the spirits”, used to contact both deceased ancestors and tribal guardians, at all-night ‘bira’ (pl. mapira) ceremonies. At these ceremonies, ‘vadzimu’ (spirits of family ancestors), ‘mhondoro’ (spirits of deceased chiefs) and ‘makombwe’ (the most powerful guardian spirits of the Shona) give guidance on family and community matters and exert power over weather and health.
Mbira is required to bring rain during drought, stop rain during floods, and bring clouds when crops are burned by the sun. It is also used to chase away harmful spirits, and to cure illnesses with or without a ‘n’anga’ (traditional diviner/herbalist).
Mbira is included in celebrations of all kinds, including weddings, installation of new chiefs, and, more recently, government events such as independence day and international conferences.
Mbira is also required at death ceremonies, and is played for a week following a chief’s death before the community is informed of his passing. At the ‘guva’ ceremony, approximately one year after a person’s physical death, mbira is used to welcome that individual’s spirit back to the community.
In previous centuries, court musicians played mbira for Shona kings and their diviners. Although the mbira was originally used in a limited number of Shona areas, today it is popular throughout Zimbabwe. mbira is desired for the general qualities it imparts: peaceful mind and strong life force. The Shona mbira is also rapidly becoming known around the world, due to tours by both traditional musicians and Zimbabwean electric bands which include the instrument.
During Zimbabwe’s colonial period (when it was known as Rhodesia), missionaries taught that mbira was evil, and the popularity of mbira in Zimbabwe declined. Since independence in 1980, mbira has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity.