Title: The Soul of Mbira—Mbiriviri; Simon Mashoko, njari (field recording by Paul Berliner--see Bibliography). Label: Nonesuch. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 9 72054-2. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

The njari is a lamellaphone idiophone used by the Zezuru and Karanga peoples of Zimbabwe. It is used both for religious ceremonies and in secular settings. An example of the latter is heard on the audio clip, where the njari is played by a storyteller who dances and acts while playing the instrument. The njari pictured in gallery#1 was constructed recently and is in fully-operational condition; the instrument seen in gallery #2 is decades old and is missing its ‘rattling’ mechanism.


The soundboards of both njari are made from solid blocks of hardwood. They are basically flat with low sidewalls. The top ends of the soundboards are closed off by long blocks of wood that are inserted between the soundboard walls and serve as the backrest for the lamellae. The thirty slender tongues/lamellae on the newer njariare made from forged iron; the twenty-seven keys of the older instrument are made from forged iron and brass, the former material used for the nine upper-register tongues, the latter for the eighteen middle- and low-register keys (there is a possibility that this instrument was at one time outfitted with a few more lamellae). The tongues on both instruments are pounded thinner and wider at their sounding end than at their anchored end. They are held in place with a metal pressure bar that exerts a downward pressure on the keys against the backrest block of wood at the top end of the board and a metal bridge. This metal bridge rests vertically on the board, held in place by slots cut into the board’s sidewalls. Makers set the downward pressure of the bar with wire, which is threaded alternately around the pressure bar and through holes in the soundboard before being pulled taut (see detail #1 for the backside of the gallery #1 instrument). The playing end of each tongue is arched upward, but to a different degree depending on in which of the three ranks it is located. The ‘rattling’ devise on the newer njari consists of a metal plate with loosely attached bottle caps located beneath the longest lamellae and running to the bottom end of the soundboard; a similar mechanism most likely once existed on the older instrument but has been lost.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

This njari is typically wedged inside a hemispheric gourd resonator with some sort of secondary rattling device (shells or bottle caps) attached to it (not pictured). The player holds the instrument’s sidewalls in the palms of his hands, leaving his thumbs (with a downward motion) and index fingers (with an upward motion) free to flex the tongues. Tunings vary from instrument to instrument. The njari in gallery #2 is tuned to a non-equal-tempered heptatonic scale and has a two-and-one-half octave range from approximately A2 to E5. The pitches are distributed in such a way that the same pitch in the same octave is often available on both sides of the instrument. The lamellae configuration also makes convenient the nearly simultaneous sounding of the same pitch in two and sometimes three octaves with a downward sweeping motion of the thumbs. The final four lamellae located at the ends of the middle rank are the only keys plucked with an upward motion of the index fingers.


The origins of the njari are not known with certainty, although the scholar Andrew Tracey postulates that it, and many other lamellaphone types from this region, evolved from a proto-kalimba instrument with eight keys. Hugh Tracey speculates that the njari, in its current form, originated in the 1700s in the Zambezi River valley. Probably the most widespread form of Zezuru lamellaphone in use in pre-colonial times (19th century and before), during the 20th century the popularity of the njari has gradually been usurped by other types of mbira due to a number of factors of a non-musical nature. 

Bibliographic Citations

Berliner, Paul F. 1977. The Soul of Mbira. CD and liner notes. Nonesuch 9 72054-2.

________. 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.

Tracey, Andrew. 1972. “The Original African Mbira?” African Music 5/2: 85-104.

Tracey, Hugh. “The Mbira Class of African Instruments in Rhodesia (1932).” African Music 4/3: 78-95.

Turino, Thomas. 1998. “The Mbira, Worldbeat, and the International Imagination.” the world of music 40/2: 85-106.


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


gallery #1: 7 in. width of soundboard at top 8.5 in. width of soundboard at bottom 8.6 in. height of soundboard gallery #2: 7 in. width of soundboard 8.5 in. height of soundboard

Primary Materials

metal - sheet
bottle caps


Jacob Mafuleni (gallery #1)

Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter