Contextual Associations

The mbiu is a side-blown lip-reed aerophone of the Swahili-speaking peoples of east Africa. This mbiu was procured in Kenya, where such instruments have historically been used by town criers to signal the delivery of an important proclamation to the public. “Mbiu ya mgambo ikilia ina jambo” is a Swahili proverb that translates as: “When the buffalo-horn sounds, there is something of importance.” (3339. Mbiu …) Similar horns, often with lavishly carved surface decoration and called siwa, are found throughout Swahili-speaking areas and, indeed, throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa (under a variety of local names), in association with persons holding positions of authority (such as chiefs and kings).


The mbiu is a side-blown horn with a pronounced conical bore made from a buffalo or cow antler. The marrow is removed (through soaking) leaving only the exterior ‘skin’ of the antler. A hole in the wall of the antler is created through drilling or chiseling a few inches from the horn’s tip. This hole must be located near the top of the apex of the horn’s bore.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

While holding the mbiu horizontally, the player covers the opening near its tip with his lips. By forcing an airstream through his tensed lips, the lips rapidly open and close (‘buzz’), allowing bursts of energy into the horn that set the air into vibration, producing a pitch. The pitch of this mbiu is approximately G4. Overblowing does not produce overtones, so it would appear that this is a single-pitch signaling instrument. Its sound is clear and penetrating. 


It is not possible to determine when the mbiu came into existence. However, there is little doubt that side- and end-blown animal-horn trumpets are of considerable antiquity given their broad distribution on the African continent and elsewhere in the ancient world.

Bibliographic Citations

“3339. Mbiu ya mgambo ikilia ina jambo.  Swahili Proverbs: Methali za Kiswahili website, Center for African Studies, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Accessed August 19, 2015: http://swahiliproverbs.afrst.illinois.edu/master.html

Chusid, Michael. “Mbiu: An African ‘Shofar.’” Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn website. Accessed August 19, 2015: http://hearingshofar.blogspot.com/2011/04/mbiu-african-shofar.html

 “Mbiu.” In Swahili-English Dictionary. Accessed August 19, 2015: http://www.swahili.it/glossword/index.php?a=term&t=ae5bafa4aca3a9b15d5e


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: East Africa

Nation: Kenya

Formation: Swahili

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.122.2 aerophone--side-blown curved natural labrosone

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over hole in side of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: single pitch - one pitch produced in single air cavity


15 in. length

Primary Materials

horn - mammal

Entry Author

Roger Vetter