Mbira or 'thumb piano' is a traditional African ,Zimbabwean musical instrument consisting of a basic cyclical pattern which includes numerous intertwined melodies, often with contrasting rhythms[1] Mbira was traditionally used at religious ceremonies to evoke spiritual possession. Later, the instrument started to be incorporated in contemporary and pop music. Though most popular in Zmbabwe, mbira is also played in some African countries, albeit with different names.


The history of mbira started in the 14th Century at the Great Zimbabwe ruins where the first mbira was made. It is believed, that a spirit came among theShona and taught them how to to make the musical instrument.[2]

Different names

  • the likembe and sanza in Congo
  • the ikembe in Rwanda and Burundi
  • the prempremsuah and gyilgo in Ghana
  • the ilimba and chirimba in Tanzania
  • the kadongo and akogo in Uganda
  • the kalimba in Kenya


Mbira has been played by the Shona for over 700 yers. The instrument itself consists of 22 to 28 metal keys mounted on a hardwood soundboard known as a gwariva in Shona. The board is made from an indigenous tree, the mubvamaropa tree (Pterocarpus angolensis). Originally the the metal keys were smelted directly from rock containing iron ore but with time, now, they may be made from recycled steel such as resofa springs, bicycle spokes or car seat springs.[3] For amplification, mira is placed inside a ' deze' (calabash resonator) mounted with bottle tops or shells.

Traditional Use

The Shona people view the mbira as a sacred instrument especially the 22 key mbira DzaVadzimu. Since the keys were made from melted iron ore dug out from sacred hills and holy mountains where the Shona chiefs and Shona statesmen are buried, this to them signify the presence of ancestral spirits directly on the instrument. For that reason, the instrument is one of the Shona's most important in religious ceremonies.[4]


Apart from the Mbira DzaVadzimu which is common in Zimbabwe, there are other less popular types of mbira types;

  1. Karimba/Nyunga Nyunga/Kwanongoma mbira

This originated from Mozambique, Tete province in particular in the 1960s by one Jeke Tapera, who brought it to Kwanongoma College of African music in Bulawayo. This type is different from the Mbira DzaVadzimu in that it has fewer keys only in two rows and it lacks a hole in the soundboard. Another reason is that its key pitches radiate out from the center, rather than left to right.[5]

  1. Matepe

This type is similar to the Mbira Dzavadzimu in construction and is usually played by the Kore-kore people of Zimbabwe. It is played using both thumbs and both index fingers.


  1. Mbira Organisation, What is mbira - the Zimbabwean musical tradition?, Published: ND, Retrieved: 2 May 2014
  2. History, 'Mbira Junction', Published: 2007, Retrieved: 2 May 2014
  3. Mbira Organisation, The Mbira Instrument, 'Mbira', Published: ND, Retrieved: 2 May 2014
  4. Mbira and Shona Spirituality, 'Zambuko', Published: ND, Retrieved: 2 May 2014
  5. Tinotenda, African lamellophones, 'African Mbiras', Published: ND, Retrieved: 2 May 2014