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Guide to Mbiras

Mbira : What is it?

Mbiras

Mbiras, also called kalimbas or thumb pianos, are made up of tongue-like metal keys arranged on wooden boards. The keys are tuned roughly similar to pianos, usually arranged in one to two rows. They are held with both hands and played by flicking the keys with the thumb and index finger. They are traditionally played inside a deze, a type of calabash resonator, although modern mbiras are built onto hollow wooden boxes for amplification. Mbiras have a unique sound often compared to steel drums, xylophones, and marimbas, and are best accompanied with hand percussions, flutes, or guitars.

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Types of Mbiras

MbirasMbiras

Kinds of Mbiras include the following:

Mbira dzavadzimu

These mbiras have 22 to 28 metal keys attached to a hardwood soundboard called a gwariva. The bass and middle range keys occupy two rows on the left, while the secondary bass and high keys are on a single row on the right. The user fits his right index finger through a hole on the soundboard, so that the right index finger can play the right-hand keys. The gwariva has a series of shells, bottle caps, or other small objects at the bottom, which produce a soft buzz when the keys are played.

Mbira nyunga nyunga

These mbiras have fewer keys, arranged in two rows with the largest keys at the center. They are held with both hands on the sides, using the thumbs to play the keys. They have no finger hole at the bottom right, since the index and little finger can be placed behind the soundboard. There are usually three bottle caps arranged horizontally at the bottom. 

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Choosing Mbiras (Buying tips)

Keys: Choose a mbira with high-quality brass keys for excellent sound and resonance. Look for those with a longer note sustain to highlight the bottle cap sounds. Loose keys fall out of tune easily, so make sure they are firmly bound to the soundboard, preferably with a crossbar or individual attachments.

Soundboard size: Make sure the soundboard is the right size for your hands. Children can usually handle soundboards measuring 6.5 x 7 inches, while a 7.5 x 8.5 soundboard should be suitable for adults. Look for a narrower soundboard and keys if you have short fingers.

Tuning: Choose a mbira that comes with a tuning kit. If you are a beginner, record each key the sound of each key for reference when you tune them in the future. Look for one with smooth key ends for a more stable tune. 

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