Ask Erica

Erica Azim answers your questions about mbira — the music, the instruments, the people, and the cultural traditions behind them. Questions about this website and the MBIRA non-profit organization are also welcome. If Erica doesn’t know the answer to your question, she’ll ask one of her many Zimbabwean mbira player friends and relay their answer.

Read current questions and answers below, then ask a new question.

I just purchased a traditional Shona Mbira. I find the keys very hard and the sound is soft unless I use more pressure from thumbs, which is quite painful. Is this usual, and do I just need to develop calluses on thumbs, or do some mbira have softer keys.

Some mbiras do have softer keys than others. It helps to grow your thumb and forefinger nails at least as long as the end of your thumbs/finger, and play in a position that uses both the flesh and nail. Calluses help, but even in Zimbabwe many mbira players use wire picks on at least one thumb or finger. We sell one type at Contact us again if you want a recommendation to help you buy an mbira with softer keys.

I have a hard time hearing how the hosho parts connect with the meter I hear/​play in the mbira part–I think I’m disoriented! When the hosho player is playing a two-part rhythm, is the shorter first sound we hear the beat? Or is that an upbeat to the second swishing sound? Related to that, when the hosho player is playing a three-part rhythm, is the shorter first sound we hear the beat? Or are the two shorter first sounds an upbeat to the third swishing sound?

There are many subtly different styles of playing hosho with mbira. When you hear a short crisp sound followed by a swoosh, the first short sound is the primary beat. When you hear 3 sounds, the primary beat can be the 2nd or 3rd sound, depending on the style of the hosho player. But if there is a swoosh (there isn’t always), then it is after the primary beat.

I would add that the concept of one beat is Western, and all the hosho sounds are important in the music, and may have dance steps that fall on them. But what I am calling the primary beat is the one that people hearing mbira are most likely to clap on, if clapping in a simple way. More complicated makwa (clapping) with mbira is another thing with much rhythmic variety.

Sometimes there’s a string coming out of the center of the deze. Is this for carrying it to not put pressure on the lip?

The string can be used to carry a deze, mostly by sellers who need to carry several at once. Musicians may use that to hang the deze on a wall out of reach of small children.

It is important to never carry a calabash/gourd deze by the lip, as that is the most fragile part and easily broken. A few people put bamboo (or another material) around the lip of the deze to strengthen it, but that does reduce the resonance somewhat, in my experience. A fiberglass deze can be carried by the lip if it is empty or has little weight inside.

I’ve seen pictures of some well-aged mbiras, with their distinctively darkened soundboards and keys, and wonder what made them look this way. Aside from utilitarian tuning/​repair as needed, do gwenyambiras ever perform any routine upkeep on their mbiras, such as oiling either the soundboard or lamellae? Would a gwenyambira take care not to let his mbira get wet in a downpour, or are mbiras exposed to the elements and left to evolve as they may?

That’s 3 questions!

1. Over time, the wood board of an mbira becomes darker from exposure to light, the natural oils on the hands of the musician, and sometimes dust/dirt. The keys become darker due to corrosion, and the different types of steel used by different makers vary in how quickly this happens.

2. It is important NOT to oil the board of an mbira, which could make the keys pop out when played, instead of staying in place. No routine upkeep is needed other than occasional tuning and tightening of keys. But some musicians use Vaseline on their thumbs/finger when playing, which also polishes the playing end of the keys, making them smoother and less likely to cause blisters when playing all night. Others may rub thumbs on their nose or forehead in order to use natural oils for the same purpose. Mbiras sold at have Vaseline rubbed on the keys below the crossbars to prevent corrosion while stored in a coastal environment in California. Again VERY important NOT to put Vaseline on the keys at or above the crossbars, as it might leak down to the wood and result in keys popping out.

3. Mbira players typically travel with the mbira in a deze, which also protects it from the elements. However, in 1974 I once saw Ephat Mujuru scold a member of his mbira group who had his mbira in a clamp on the back of his bicycle, exposed to the rain which was starting.

For those who haven’t seen an older mbira yet, these are the mbiras of the Dzapasi Mbira Group.

Dzapasi Mbira Group's mbiras (2016)

How many keys does an mbira have?

Mbira-type instruments throughout Africa have many configurations and numbers of keys. The type of Shona mbira in Zimbabwe that is primarily discussed on this website most commonly has 22 to 24 keys, but sometimes up to 28 or even more according to the musician’s preference. Learn more about this at The Mbira Instrument.

What is a gwariva?

A gwariva is the hardwood mbira soundboard that we hold in our hands and to which the metal keys are fastened. The word gwariva may also be used to refer to the whole mbira instrument.

What is Nyamaropa tuning?

An mbira tuning is the set of relationships between the notes of an mbira. Each mbira instrument typically has one tuning for its lifetime, set by the lengths, thicknesses, and positions of the keys held down on the bridge by the pressure bar. We tune an mbira by tapping the out of tune key from one end or the other.

There are many standard tunings and any number of idiosyncratic variations set by individual musicians and groups. Nyamaropa tuning is the most common tuning, but is found in infinite different pitches around Zimbabwe. The intervals on a nyamaropa, or “straight,” tuning mbira, are similar to Mixolydian mode in Western music, but have many slight variations as they are not tuned to Western half and whole steps in most cases.

You can read more about mbira tunings and listen to examples at Tune Your Mbira.