mbira dzavadzimu

Also:       mbira nhare      mbira huru      

Title: Shona Mbira Music—Nhemamusasa; Cosmas and Alexia Magaya, mbira dzavadzimu (field recording by Paul Berliner--see Bibliography). Label: Nonesuch. Format: LP. Catalogue#: H-72077. Track: A-1.

Contextual Associations

The mbira dzavadzimu (‘mbira of the ancestors’), also known as the nhare mbira (‘iron mbira’), is a lamellaphone idiophone of the Zezuru Shona people of Zimbabwe. It is closely associated with traditional spirit possession ceremonies. These ceremonies, known as bira, are the primary context in which the mbira dzavadzimu is played, but it also has come to be incorporated in other settings more secular in nature. In recent decades, this instrument has become the most widely known form of Zimbabwean lamellaphone. This rise to prominence is often associated with the surge in nationalism that led to the Zimbabwean independence struggle of the 1970s. Music played on the mbira dzavadzimu became a source of nationalistic pride and came to index indigenous identity. The secularization and popularization of the mbira dzavadzimu continued after the independence movement as popular music groups began to incorporate traditional musical instruments and styles into contemporary musical forms. This synthesis of traditional and popular music was most notably done by Thomas Mapfumo. As the focus of scholarly writings and recordings published by American ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner in the 1970s, the mbira dzavadzimu came to the attention of an international audience.


From a design standpoint, three features help to distinguish this specific type of lamellaphone (plucked idiophone) from numerous others: 1) a solid wood soundboard with a fingerhole drilled into its bottom right hand corner; 2) 22-28 metal (iron or brass) tongues/lamellae; and 3) three ranks of tongues. Among the eight mbira dzavadzimu pictured on this page are found examples with 22 (gallery #2, #3 and #7), 24 (gallery #1, #4, #5 and detail #1), and 28 keys (gallery #6). Each tongue is wider and thinner at its sounding end than at its anchored one. They are held in place with a metal pressure bar that exerts a downward pressure on the keys against the thick top end of the board, serving as a backrest, and a metal bridge. This metal bridge rests vertically on the board, held in place by slots cut into the board’s sidewalls. The maker sets the downward pressure of the bar with wire (sometimes with nuts and bolts), which is threaded alternately around the bar and through holes in the soundboard before being pulled taut. The playing end of each tongue is arched upward, but to a different degree depending on in which rank it is located. Some sort of device will be attached near the bottom of the board to contribute a background buzzing or rattling sound to the primary sound produced on the lamellae; two devices can be seen in the gallery of photos on this page (one incorporating metal beads, the other a metal sheet with loosely attached bottle caps). Although not an integral part of the instrument itself, a mbira dzavadzimu is typically wedged into a deze, a large hemispheric gourd (can be made from fiberglass as well) resonator with bottle caps loosely attached around its rim (see detail photo). The resonator and its buzzing mechanism greatly increase the volume of the mbira dzavadzimu.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player holds the soundboard by its sides, inserting the baby finger of the right hand through the soundboard hole; this situates the high-register rank (with the shortest lamellae) to the right (played by the right hand thumb with a downward motion and the index finger from beneath the tongues with an upwards motion) and the middle- and low-register ranks (with the longer lamellae) to the left arranged in two parallel rows (these tongues are plucked by the left hand thumb with a downward motion). Mbira dzavadzimu are tuned to a non-standardized heptatonic scale over a range of three octaves or greater; the 24-key instrument pictured in the first photo on this page has a range of just over three octaves, from about A-sharp2 to C6. For a discussion of the distribution of pitches throughout the three ranks and of tuning variability, see Berliner (1981, pp. 54-72). Typically, two players performing on like-tuned mbira produce complementary interlocking parts (kushaura, ‘to lead,’ and kutsinhira, ‘to accompany’) within a fast 48-beat phrase that is cyclical. Over time within a performance, the details of the separate and combined mbira parts will subtly evolve.


There is archaeological evidence at Kumadzulo, in Zambia, of strips of iron resembling mbira lamellae that have indirectly been dated to 500-700 CE. In 1586 a Portuguese missionary by the name of João dos Santos gave a description of an ‘ambira’ from his travels. Several early scholars included drawings of mbira that closely resemble modern forms of the mbira dzavadzimu. This suggests that little has changed in either form or function of this instrument since at least as far back as the 16th century.

Bibliographic Citations

Berliner, Paul F. 1977. Shona Mbira MusicLP and liner notes. Nonesuch H-72077.

________. 1981. The Soul of Mbira—Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kaemmer, John E.  1998. “Music of the Shona of Zimbabwe.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.1. ed. Ruth M. Stone. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 744-758.

Kubik, Gerhard. 1984. “Lamellaphone. 2. Central, Southern and Eastern Africa.” NGDMI v.2: 497-501.

________, and Peter Cooke. "Lamellophone." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed September 19, 2013, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40069

Sayce, Katherine, ed. 1987. s.v. "Music, Traditional." Encyclopedia Zimbabwe. Harare: Quest Publishing.

Turino, Thomas. 2000. Nationalists, Cosmopolitans, and Popular Music in Zimbabwe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: East Africa

Nation: Zimbabwe

Formation: Shona

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

122.11 idiophone--lamellaphone (or plucked idiophone; lamellae, i.e. elastic plaques, fixed at one end, are flexed and then released to return to their position of rest) in board- or comb-form; the lamellae are attached to a board or cut out from a board like the teeth of a comb; without integral resonator

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: tongue - heteroglot

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: separate resonating space shared by multiple sonorous objects - temporarily affixed to instrument when played

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: flexing - direct

Sound exciting agent: fingertip/s, fingernail/s, finger-mounted pick/s

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: bottle caps loosely attached to sonorous surface


9 in. height of soundboard (gallery #1) 7.3 in. width of soundboard (gallery #1)

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter