mbira dzaVaNdau

Title: Other Musics from Zimbabwe--Neiwe unonyanya; Simon Mafiru Sitole, mbira dzaVaNdau and voice (field recording by Hugh Tracey--see Andrew Tracey entry in Bibliography). Label: SWP Records. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SWP 012. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The mbira dzaVaNdau is a lamellaphone idiophone commonly found in eastern Zimbabwe and Mozambique among the Ndau people. It is played by young men for entertainment and courting, and by minstrels known as varombe for professional entertainment. The instrument is very personalized; no two mbira dzaVaNdau seem to be tuned alike, so they are always played solo.


This mbira dzaVaNdau consists of a partially hollowed-out wood board (see first detail photo) to which 30 lamellae are attached (other specimens range from 24 to 36 in their number of keys). 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 a strip of wood running across the 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, which is threaded alternately around the bar and through holes in the soundboard before being pulled taut. The lamellae are organized into five distinct manuals, each with its longest and lowest-pitched tongue to the left and progressing to its shortest and highest-pitched one at the right. The left side of the instrument has three ranks of four, four, and eight lamellae from the bottom, lowest register one to the top, highest register one; the right side has two manuals of seven tongues each with the lower register rank below the upper register one. The playing end of each tongue is arched upward, but to a different degree depending on in which rank it is located. One edge of a metal plate with nine loosely attached bottle caps is nailed to the soundboard to contribute a background buzzing or rattling sound to the musical sound produced on the lamellae. Although not an integral part of the instrument, a mbira dzaVaNdau is typically wedged into a resonator, not uncommonly, as is the case with this instrument, made from a tin canister with one face removed and a few bottle caps loosely attached (see second detail photo). The resonator and its buzzing mechanism greatly increase the volume of the mbira dzaVaNdau.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Even when placed in the resonator the player holds the two sides of the board between his palms so that the longest/lowest-pitched lamellae are to the left. Using only his two thumbs, he flexes and releases the tongues with a downward motion. The lamellae are tuned to a non-standardized hexatonic (6-tone) scale over a range of slightly more than three octaves from about E2 to G-sharp5. With the exception of the four notes in the lowest-register of the bottom left hand rank, nearly every other pitch is duplicated at least once in the layout of lamellae making possible rapid reiterations of tones. The player usually performs solo while singing and/or speaking over, typically, a repeated phrase of 48 fast pulses.


There is archaeological evidence at Kumadzulo, in Zambia, of strips of iron resembling lamellae that have indirectly 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 early mbira forms that closely resemble modern forms of lamellaphones. It is likely that the mbira dzaVaNdau developed from these early forms of lamellaphones. A late 19th century incursion by Nguni people very likely effected change in Ndau musical practices, and Andrew Tracey suggests that distinctive features of the mbira dzaVaNdau tuning may be the result of this cultural encounter.

Bibliographic Citations

Berliner, Paul F. 1981. The Soul of Mbira—Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

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

Perman, Tony. Key layout chart for the mbira dzaVaNdau.

Tracey, Andrew. 2000. Other Musics from Zimbabwe. CD and liner notes. SWP Records SWP 012.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: East Africa

Nation: Zimbabwe

Formation: Ndau

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

122.12 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; with 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


7 in. height 7 in. width

Primary Materials

bottle caps


Zombiyi Muzite

Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter