Also:       mbira dzavatonga       

Title: Batonga Across the Waters—Inzala Izima Mulilo; Kapule Mutale, kankobela (field recording by Michael Baird--see Bibliography). Label: Stichting Sharp Wood Productions/Choma Museum & Crafts Centre. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SWP 005. Track: 13.

Contextual Associations

The kankobela is a lamellaphone idiophone played by the Tonga people of the Zambezi River basin in present day Zimbabwe and Zambia. Referred to locally as the kankobela and, by other Zimbabweans, as the mbira dzavatonga, it is often used for self-entertainment to accompany songs sung by its players to reflect over incidents in their own lives.


The kankobela has eleven metal tongues/lamellae mounted on a fan-shaped wooden soundboard. Each key is wider and thinner at its sounding end than at its anchored one. The playing end of each key dramatically arches upward while the anchored end bends slightly downward. The keys 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, functioning 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, which is threaded alternately around the bar and through holes in the soundboard before being pulled taut. The soft sound of this instrument is amplified by holding it over a vessel resonator, here made from a tin can with its top removed and its rim covered with stretched rubber; traditionally a small gourd is used for the resonator. The soundboard has a small hole drilled at its center that can be covered with a fine membrane (not present on the pictured instrument) to add a secondary buzz to the instrument's tone.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player uses his fingertips to hold the resonator and the kankobela in place so that he can use his two thumbs to pluck the ends of the tongues with a downward motion. It is not known if the keys are currently in tune or what the intended tuning concept is (it appears in its current state to be tuned to an un-tempered octatonic scale).


Small, fan-shaped lamellaphones with 8-14 lamellae are found amongst several Zambezi River basin peoples (see also kangombio), but like so many musical instruments in this area, and throughout much of Africa, there is scant historical documentation available that chronicles their origin and evolution. Andrew Tracey postulates that many lamellaphone types found in this region of Africa evolved from a proto-kalimba instrument with eight lamellae. But exactly how and when the diffusion of this instrument design concept occurred is nearly impossible to know.

Bibliographic Citations

Baird, Michael. 2008. Batonga Across the Waters. CD with liner notes. Sharp Wood Records SWP 005.

Ellert. H. 1984. The Material Culture of Zimbabwe. Harare: Longman Zimbabwe.

Malamusi, Moya Aliya, and Moses Yotamu. "Zambia." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.Oxford University Press, accessed September 23, 2013, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/30806

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


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: East Africa

Nation: Zambia

Formation: Tonga

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: none


4.7 in. greatest length of board 4.4 in. greatest width of board 3.6 in. diameter of resonator 3 in. height of resonator

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter