Also:       kangombia      kanomba       

Title: Kalimba & Kalumbu Songs, Northern Rhodesia 1952 & 1957—Shendamunde banana; Alexander Muhiana, kangombio and voice, Griffis Kopo, voice (field recording by Hugh Tracey—see Andrew Tracey entry in Bibliography). Label: Stichting Sharp Wood Productions. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SWP 010/HT 04. Track: 17.

Contextual Associations

The kangombio is a lamellaphone idiophone of the Lozi people of Zambia. The identification of this specimen as a kangombio is based on its physical (board shape, number and arrangement of lamella, resonator design) and acoustical features (tuning), and on its similarity to an identified instrument in the Musée d'ethnographie, Genève. The word “kanomba” is etched in dots on the surface of the instrument’s resonator (detail #6), but if this was the actual name of the instrument in the mind of its original owner, it does not appear anywhere in the literature on African lamellaphones. Assuming this is indeed an example of a Lozi kangombio, it would have been used for self-entertainment to accompany songs sung by its players to reflect over incidents in their own lives.


The kangombio consists of two non-integral units: the lamellaphone itself, and an independent resonator (detail #1). This lamellaphone is built upon a slightly fan-shaped wooden board with thin sidewalls (gallery #1) and a hole in its center over which, on its bottom side, is found the remnants of a membrane of an unidentified material that once covered it (detail #2). The thirteen narrow and thin metal tongues/keys are attached to the soundboard with the downward pressure of a metal rod (a pressure bar) that runs side-to-side across the instrument, the pressure introduced with a wire that alternately is wound around the bar and through holes to the bottom side of the board (detail #3 and #2). This pressure brings each key in firm contact with two other parts of the body: the non-acoustically active end of the keys are pressed against a backrest, which is a raised section of the board that runs across the top end of the instrument; and the top edge of a thin metal bridge set vertically between the board’s sides. This arrangement leaves the long open end of each key free to vibrate when given energy by the plucking action of the performer. The keys are arranged in two manuals—a lower one with ten keys, and an upper one with three (detail #4). The lower manual keys are all nearly of the same length but vary noticeably in their widths—the longer, wider keys to the left, the shorter, narrower ones to the right (detail #5). This produces an ascending scale from the left side to the right side of the lower manual. The upper manual keys are located above the left half of the lower manual, and their details of relative length, width, and pitch are the reverse of the lower manual keys. The resonator is a nearly spherical gourd that has an opening the edge of which is covered with cloth padding that is held in place by rope stitched around it and through holes drilled into the gourd (detail #6).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player presses his palms against the side walls of the sound board to support the kangombio and uses his fingertips to hold the resonator gourd in place with its opening against the backside of the instrument. This leaves the thumbs free to pluck the ends of the tongues with a downward motion. The vibrational energy of the plucked keys is amplified in the resonator and in turn sets the membrane stretched over the hole in the sound board into vibration, which adds a raspy quality to the sound of the keys. It is not known if the keys are currently in tune, but their current tuning suggests an un-tempered hexatonic scale. It can be safely said that the lowest pitch on the instrument is produced by the left-most key on the bottom manual, and that each successive key to its right produces a pitch that is a scale degree higher than that of the previous key. The three highest pitches on the instrument are produced on the upper manual keys, of which the left most one produces the highest pitch on the instrument.


Small, fan-shaped lamellaphones with 8-14 lamellae are found amongst several Zambezi River basin peoples (see also kankobela), 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

“ETHMU 043102.” Item entry in the Musée d'ethnographie, Genève, online collection, accessed 25 April 2019: https://www.ville-ge.ch/meg/musinfo_public.php?id=043102

Kubik, Gerhard. 1999. “African and African American Lamellophones: History, Typology, Nomenclature, Performers, and Intracultural Concepts.” In Turn Up the Volume!: A Celegration of African Music. ed. DjeDje, Jacqueline Cogdell. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, pp. 20-57.

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

________. 1998. Kalimba & Kalumbu Songs, Northern Rhodesia 1952 & 1957. Booklet accompanying CD SWP 010/HT 04. Utrecht: Stichting Sharp Wood Productions.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: East Africa

Nation: Zambia

Formation: Lozi

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: tensioned membrane over hole in resonator


lamellophone: 6.5 in. greatest length of board 5 in. greatest width of board .9 in depth of board sides 2.4 in. vibrating length of longest lamella 1.9 in. vibrating length of shortest lamella gourd resonator: 6 in height 7 in. diameter 4 in. diameter of opening

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter