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Mbira, Mbira, in the Hand, Who's the Coolest Cat in the Land?

Map of Zimbabwe
As I sip my coffee and try "nhopi" (a mixture of smashed pumpkin and peanut butter, not from Zimbabwe) for the first time, I'm compelled to sit back and relax to an intriguing musical performance of an instrument and style that I've never heard before. It is that of "Mbira" music, a traditional style that's been used in upper South African cultures for over a thousand years.

Mbira is a term that is used to describe four related concepts. It is the name of a musical instrument with metal keys and it also names each individual key. It is also the type of music played on the mbira instrument. Lastly, it refers to the family of instruments with similar general features but with different configurations and social and religious functions.

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Wow, an instument you can play with your thumbs!
The player I'm watching and listening to carefully is Mr. Kanga-Fry Katonje Judah Nembire, and boy was I relieved when he told me to simply call him "Kanga-Fry". The mbira he's playing was especially designed by and for himself and varies somewhat from the traditional mbira design. In addition to using a soundboard and a gourd for amplification, mbiras normally use shells or more recently bottle caps fixed to the board to make it louder still. But Kanga-Fry's mbira has a small jack in the bottom of the 10x10 in. soundboard for a microphone chord that connects to an electric amplification system much like an electric guitar would. When amplified in this way, the resulting sound resembles that of a mallet instrument like a xylophone. His instrument is also larger than most and has a hole for his right pinkie to go through as his other fingers wrap around and grip the board from the back.

Everything You ever Wanted to Know About the Mbira!

The instrument itself is made of a series of metal keys arranged into three groupings and then fixed to a wooden soundboard that resonates. Out of the instrument's three octaves, there are the two lower octaves arranged into two rows on the left side and the higher third octave sits on the right. The board is mounted on a hollowed out gourd for further amplification. But even the mbira's construction has several spiritual aspects. The metal keys are made from an iron ore dug out of the sacred hills and holy mountains where Shona chiefs and statesmen are buried. These keys personify the presence of ancestral spirits right onto the instrument. The soundboard, the first means of amplification, is made from a special tree called mubvamaropa, which represents basic Shona necessities such as shelter and fuel. The resonator gourd called the deze is from a special type of dried squash called nharigatanga which is a source of food (also used as a drinking gourd). So, the instrument symbolizes many basic elements of everyday Shona life. The only requirement is to add a human dimension to make its societal significance complete.

As he sits in his chair practically motionless, he is moving only his two thumbs and right index finger to play what sounds like incredibly complicated music at times. His left thumb is responsible for playing the baseline. The thumbs play by striking the keys in a downward motion. His right index finger can also play by moving down the scale in the opposite direction, striking the keys with an upstroke. The primary function of the right hand is to play the melody, however.

Mbira songs use the Western scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do). The songs are also cyclical which means that they start out with a basic melodic phrase and then repeat the phrase over and over again. This is done with a lot of variation however and can sound more and more complex as the phrases are repeated or developed. Kanga-Fry makes use of a lot of improvisation, expressing whatever he feels best with each passing moment. His songs are polyrhythmic and rely heavily on syncopation.

The plucking of the keys affects the exactness of pitch and creates many overtones some of which are harmonious and intended, while others are dissonant, unavoidable but nevertheless an integral part of the musical style. It reminds me of a word puzzle with many scrambled letters on the page from which you must extract and recognize meaningful words. Melodic phrases are also hidden within this cacophony of tone and overtone and it's an endless game for the listener to play. And just when you finally think you've got it, the volume is incrementally reduced and the song fades out entirely.

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Mr. Kanga-Fry working his magic on the mbria
Kanga-Fry holds the instrument before him, almost in his lap, so that even his finger movements are hidden. Aside from the chill bopping of his head, the only other perceptible movement he makes is that of his dark lips playfully revealing and hiding his pearly white teeth as he sings the songs in his native Shona language, often with his eyes closed. With the human voice, the melody is immediately detectable as well as the emotion deeply imbedded within the line against the background of the mbira instrument. Many Mbira songs are traditional Shona folksongs often about hunting, war, travel, and other ways of life. Kanga-Fry composes his own songs about himself, others, and everyday situations. Towards the end of one of his songs, he warmly sneaks in an English phrase I recognize as coming from his heart, "Zimbabwe Mbira on the move world-wide, Brotha!"

Glossary of Musical Terms:

Arpeggio -the playing of notes of a chord in succession as opposed to playing them simultaneously

Hemiola -two distinct metric patterns played against each other simultaneously (ie. two-four time against three-four time

Ostinato -a specific rhythmic pattern repeated over and over again

Polyrhythmic - 2 or more rhythmic patterns played at the same time or against one another

Syncopation - the stressing of the weak beats or "up-beats" within a given meter (i.e., In four-four time, the emphasis being on beats 2 and 4)

Kanga-Fry has his own group of mbira makers that craft their instruments entirely by hand. The steel wires for each key must be flattened with a hammer and then precisely filed or smoothed over with sandpaper in order to shape them into the proper length and pitch. Kanga-Fry, being an experienced mbira maker himself, inspects each one of them before they're sold off around the country. He told me that he can play the instrument for over four hours straight without getting tired. That's much longer than most instrumentalists of any instrument can perform without a break. If I had owned a mbira when I was in school I would've played with it for hours (hidden under my desk of course) instead of devoting all of that thumb and finger energy to the Nintendo control pad. The music is simply relaxing and enjoyable to listen to and I look forward to my first Mbira lesson later this week. That's right, Zimbabwe Mbira on the move with the World Trek, Brotha!


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