The thumb piano, or mbira – a name derived from Shona language of Zimbabwe - is uniquely African percussion instrument. In the distant past it was made entirely of wood or bamboo and could have been used for a few thousand years. Thumb piano with metal “keys” appeared some 1,300 years ago along the Zambezi River in what is now Zimbabwe and Malawi. This instrument spread widely throughout Africa, and in 2020 mbira music was endorsed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Mbira consists of a row of metal strips, used as key, attached to an open-ended wooden gourd or hollow resonator. They keys vary in length, with the longer ones placed in the centre, and each length determines the key’s pitch. The shorter the key, the higher the sound, and the longer the key, the lower it will be. The keys are made from a variety of different metals such as spring wire, and for more contemporary home-made versions, spoon handles, bicycle spokes and other recycled metal objects.
To play the instrument, the performer holds the resonator with his fingers placed underneath and uses his thumbs to pluck the keys. It produces delightfully pleasant and tranquil sounds. Harmonic or rhythmic sounds can be achieved by either plucking the keys simultaneously, or alternating plucks. Tones can be overlapped to make the effect similar to that of an orchestra - full and rich in quality and sound.
Mbira was used in ceremonial functions such as weddings, funerals, and in honour of significant people, as well as for religious purposes, to call on spirits and seek their advice. When calling on spiritual ancestors, the tribe would perform a religious ceremony which involved continuous singing, dancing, and playing music until the spirits appeared. The ritual would temporarily stop in the presence of the spirit, and begin again once it departed. Thus it was necessary for the mbira to produce a sound that would 'project into the heavens' and attract the spirits to earth.
Over hundreds of years, different people across the continent have created variations of the mbira by altering the style and name, but the general design remains consistent. The Australian Museum has a small collection of thumb pianos from several cultural groups, showing diversity in size, material and designs. They include thumb pianos such as likembe and sanza from Congo, kadongo and akogo from Uganda, kalimba from Kenya as well as examples from Zambia.
In the second half of the 20th century the African thumb piano was adopted by contemporary musicians, especially in Europe and both Americas. It not only has a long history, but also a promising future.
Researched by Natalie Cassaniti
Paul Berliner. 1992. The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. Chicago - London. University of Chicago Press.