A thumb piano

by Joseph Weinberg

Make it yourself (Issue IV/2021)


A pentatonic mbira made from a calabash, self-made by Joseph Weinberg. Photo: Daniel Seiffert

The mbira is a traditional instrument that is played all over the African continent - but comes with very different names and forms. The scientific name is “lamellophone”. The whole range of different versions all have a resonating wooden body and metal lamellae, which are plucked with the fingers to make sounds. I like the sound of the mbira very much - it is meditative and calming. Many people say it sounds a bit like the sea, like water. I grew up in Durban, South Africa, right by the sea, so this watery sound means a lot to me. And the more I learned about the richness of traditional mbira music, the more I fell in love with this instrument.

In South Africa, the mbira is slowly being forgotten in many places, and tends to be found only in some rural areas. I‘ve travelled through many villages and often the only person who knew how to play the instrument is very old: None of the young people seem interested in playing it. In Zimbabwe, South Africa's neighbour, things are different: since the 1970s and 1980s, there have been several well-known bands that play mbira, such as “Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited”. This has secured the mbira a firm place in pop culture to this day and keeps the musical tradition alive.

“It is a very personal matter for me to tune the mbira and produce exactly the sound I want.”

When I moved to Cape Town to study African music, I met many well-known mbira players, including Dingiswayo Juma. He taught me to build my first mbira from scratch. It was a Nyunga Nyunga mbira, which is often played in Zimbabwe but originally comes from Mozambique. It has 15 metal bars and is tuned in F major. Today I play different types of mbiras. For me, as a musician, it is very important to make my own mbiras. If my instrument doesn't sound good before a concert or if something breaks, I know exactly how to fix it. It is a very personal matter for me to tune the mbira and produce exactly the sound I want. For the construction of my mbiras I use materials I find on the street - for example old bicycle spokes for the bridge, metal from old barbecues to fix the slats and scraps of wood.

Besides making music, I work as an educator in kindergartens and schools. While working with children, I had the idea to build a simpler version of the mbira with them - and that is the version presented here: It is a pentatonic mbira with five slats, made out of half a calabash. The mbira is great for children because it is very intuitive to play. You can produce tones immediately. It is also a very generous instrument, because it sounds beautiful even when you strike notes at random. That suits small children well, of course, because they can make music simply by enjoying the tones, instead of having to learn technicalities and how to read notes. When you learn an instrument, it's so often about playing well and not making any mistakes. 

As told to Gundula Haage

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