During one of my many trips back to my native South Africa, I picked up one of these beautiful instruments. They are easily available at craft markets, tourist shops, or just sold by the side of the road. Part of the Venda and Shona traditions, this type of instrument is also found further North, where it may be known as a Kalimba or Sansa.
The tuning of each member of this family is unique. For my mbira, the lowest notes are in the middle, the highest on the left and right, with different pentatonic scales in each of these two registers (see the note names below).
Temperament is a fascinating aspect. Some of the notes are a little sharper or flatter than my piano. It's weird at first, but after playing the mbira for some time, one is gradually transported into a new universe of amazing sound. These extraordinary notes don't fluctuate, even if you wiggle the metal bars back and forth. In that sense, metal is more economical than string as a method of sound production, because, unlike the strings of the piano, metal doesn't expand and contract. There is no need for constant tune ups!
The mbira has a great sound when you put your ear close, but quickly dies away from a few feet back. Not wishing to lose any tone quality, I clipped a flexible microphone to the edge, and ran it passed a receiver to a speaker with a nice handle for ease of moving around. Now I can place my instrument in a group of musicians and match them for volume.
Having started to learn the characteristics of this little gem, my thoughts began to drift towards composition. I had received a commission from the Dana Ensemble, a chamber orchestra in Youngstown, Ohio, and wrote The Garden Had Fallen Still for them. This piece throws the mbira in with winds, brass, percussion, guitar, harmonium and strings. It is played by a pianist, who is asked to alternate between piano and "thumb piano." Rehearsals were a blast, as we worked out ways of balancing dynamic levels and intonation, and gradually accepted this new member into the conventional ensemble.
The Garden Had Fallen Still will premier at Ford Family Recital Hall, DeYor Performing Arts Center, Youngstown, Ohio on Sunday, 2 May, 3:00 pm. Masks will be worn, and social distancing will be observed. Purchase tickets here.
My mbira, about 7 inches in diameter, with a clip-on microphone, and an alluring metallic sound
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