Originally from the Southern African region, the mbira musical instrument is believed to have been in existence for more than a thousand years to date and more developed in Zimbabwe, particularly among the Shona-speaking people.
The instrument comes in different types such as nhare with 25 to 28 keys, nyunga-nyunga with 15 to 18 keys, njari (25 to 30 keys), matepe with 25 keys, mbira dzavandau and mbira dzemhondoro among several others.
Other variations of mbira were made in Zambia such as karimba, mucapata and sansa in Tanzania and kalimbe in central Africa. Today, the African instrument is being made in European and Asian countries as a thump piano.
Mbira is more than just a musical instrument. In Zimbabwe it carries a significant role in the country’s tradition and culture, and carries a traditional musical identity.
Last week, The Southern Times interviewed several renowned mbira players on the essence of the instrument in Zimbabwe’s tradition and gathered that the instrument is the country’s heritage that reminds new generations of their originality.
“Before Africa was colonised, mbira was a medium of communication with God (Musikavanhu) through spirit mediums. It was played to invite the ancestral spirits through spirit mediums where people would raise their concerns or pray to God and the spirit medium ensured the prayers were heard by the Lord. This ritual was done with the nhare mbira,” said Wilfred Tichaona Mafrika, popularly known as Nyamasvisva from his musical group ‘Maungira enharira’-Zimbabwe.
His group is globally known for playing nhare mbira in several variations.
Nhare is a Shona word for a telephone, it was named after its role, ‘to call to the Lord’.
The same nhare was played at social gatherings as entertainment, at funerals, during kings’ courts (Matare aMambo) and burials, celebrating the birth of a child and seasonal family events.
According to Nyamasvisva, the tunes of the nhari were differentiated to serve their different purposes and in some cases were blended with other types of mbira to entertain people. As such, communities were familiar with the different tunes. If it was a funeral, celebration, a call for a king’s hearing or a ritual to talk to God, everyone would automatically know the meaning of the tune without being told.
“Over a thousand years ago, there were no musical notes or keys, but our great-great grandfathers used to play beautiful melodies. They would hear notes from God through the spirit mediums on how to formulate melodies, which are today called musical keys. Even though other instruments have come to Africa such as guitars, pianos and drums, among several others, mbira can form its own band with unique melodies. Our group has different set of tunes from nhari mbira such as mheketo, which is the lead; duriro, which sets the rhythm; and nhova pasi, which produces the base,” he said.
Due to the traditional role of mbira, today people are labelling every mbira player as a spirit medium, which is not the case. “It does not mean every mbira player is a spirit medium, if that were the case we would have seen a lot of European artists being spirit mediums of African ancestors. However, there are specific songs that can make a spirit medium manifest when played for people who are linked to the ancestors. Mbira is just like any other instrument such as a guitar or piano,” said Jah Prayzah, a renowned Zimbabwean musician.
Jah Prayzah also plays the nhare mbira and came up with his own variation of the instrument designed in an acoustic guitar shell. The design does not differentiate the sound of a nhare, but he uses it as his trade mark.
The Kutonga kwaro gamba hit-maker has used his mbira during Coke Studio Africa sessions where he collaborated with American Jason Durulo and an artist from Ethiopia.
“Mbira is my favorite instrument in the whole world; it is my musical identity and it is the only African instrument with notes without percussion. It is our pride as Africans and as artists, we try by all means to make the young generation appreciate it, that is why we blend it with other European sounds,” he said.