zvembira, mbira, mbira app

Mbira App

A few weeks ago a post on the wall of the Mbira Professionals Worldwide Facebook group brought to my attention the existence of a ‘mbira app’. I set myself the task of getting it immediately out of the curiosity of what it is all about and what it can do.  After a few days of tinkering around with the app, here is what I think of it.

Price

The app comes in at £1.99 via the Apple App Store. I think this reasonable when you consider that this is a very unique app. As far as I am aware, it is the only ‘mbira dzavadzimu’ app out there. Had it been priced at £5 my curiosity would still have got the better of me and I would have bought it still.

The Keys

The keys are laid out nicely and look beautiful. Maybe i would have preferred a slightly more rustic look? Still not sure. But can’t fault them in anyway.

The one super advantage is that there are no blisters for those who struggle with that problem!

Sound

My favorite line in the description of the app is,

MbiraSS recreates the original beautiful and clear sound by removing the bottle caps and shells that are often affixed to the soundboard to make a buzzing sound.

Well I’m sorry but I do like my buzzing. Might have been nicer to have the buzzing with an option to turn it off because the buzzing is part of the “original” sound for me.

I feared that it was going to sound like an electronic imitation of the mbira sound. It’s not bad actually. they even got the slight overtones in there so it’s not sounding like a keyboard mbira sound which is great!

It is tuned to  be played only in G. This unfortunately makes it rigid than you would expect from an app. You can’t change it to a key you want. It would have been better to have the flexibility to change the key. Also, if you could turn it into a gandanga/mavembe that would be really cool.

Screen Size

I do wish that I had an iPad to use this app effectively as I think a slightly bigger screen would have been good for me. I use an iPhone 4S and my fingers found it rather hard to play each key cleanly without striking another. This affects precision when playing, which is super annoying. I think on either an iPad-mini or iPad the playing experience might be better.

Playing style
I tried two methods of playing. One, using just one finger and the other using thumbs. I could only play one side of the instrument with one finger which I found annoying. However using one finger provided precision as I could even use my little finger. The two thumbs method was quite challenging yet with a slightly more satisfying outcome, when I got it right. I think with an iPad Mini or iPad this wouldn’t be a problem. If anyone out there has got either an iPad mini or iPad and you don’t mind spending £1.99, please try it out and share your experience.

The right hand keys crisis

One thing that is quite tricky is playing the right hand keys. You can’t flick the keys from underneath as you would normally do with a normal mbira. This made it hard to play an piece with a significant right hand keys input.  I think there is possibly a third way of playing the app mbira, using the left thumb and the two fingers on the right, piano style! This is what i would try to a bigger screen.

Recording 

The app can record what you play. I managed to do basic kushaura versions of Nhemamusasa and Karigamombe and played basic kutsinhira parts along. When you record it picks up all the noise around you. you don’t have the option of turning this off, annoying. I though it will be cool to record while on the London Underground to capture the sounds and I discovered that you can’t record the mbira with headphones plugged in. so after my delightful rendition of karigamombe all I got was the sound of the train. Disappointing. I will record something and post it soon.  I haven’t got as far as emailing a recording yet but that is one of the options you get.

Conclusions 

The app is exciting but pretty basic. I think it can be useful for a beginner student who is keen on remembering basic patterns of songs on the left hand. If I had the ability to develop an app, this is a great start but so much more that can be done. It is inevitable that there is going to be a mbira app in the next few years and it will be interesting to see if they offer and more exciting stuff.  You can’t ever replace a real mbira but this might be onto something as i personally see so many potential uses that are not necessarily playing.  Any questions and comments please pop them in the comments box. Cheers!

9 Replies to “MbiraSS App: A Review”

  1. One thing I wish somebody would develop is an mbira sequencer app. I think this is where the real strength of an app might lie rather than trying to play the music live. The idea is that it would be possible to enter variations in tabular format (or maybe a range of formats) and then hear the results played back to you in a variety of tunings, with tempo selection, hosho on/off button, deze on/off button. You could then ‘share’ variations as say an mp3 along with the ‘notation’ that somebody could then open up themselves in the app to see how it is constructed and make their own changes and finally (and crucially) figure out how to play it themselves on the mbira for real. I think this would open up a whole new world of people sharing and creating parts in a way that would hopefully enrich everybody’s playing.

    1. Can’t agree more. I felt rather frustrated with this app because I thought it would offer other services other than ‘playing’. There is so much possibility, if only I knew someone who can develop apps we could be onto something 🙂

  2. In horrified response to the description of this app
    “MbiraSS recreates the original beautiful and clear sound by removing the bottle caps and shells that are often affixed to the soundboard to make a buzzing sound”

    Stuff your i bla bla apps if this is where they are going! Let me explain:
    I have it on good authority that the Ancestors – those who have gone before us – and who I believe can hear us play, especially if the buzzing noise is good – want the buzz – the rustling noise of the the shells/bottle caps.
    Please cool designers include this option on such apps or similar mbira derivatives – otherwise is this not just a gimmick without a soul? Are we just playing to sound clear, or are we playing because we are moved by the ancestors, an inseparable part of the tradition of mbira music.
    When the ancestors hear us because of the buzz they feel better – and then I feel better playing to them.
    Please keep the “original” buzz going, its worked for 2 hundreds years or longer, I want the default setting to be buzz on! Either that or compulsory tiny buzzy shells on the loudspeakers of i bla blas!
    Peter

    1. Hi Peter, I understand your fears about this but, believe we should not get worried too about this because the apps are not being made for the ancestors or used for or by the ancestors. The ancestors don’t need apps, a very secular product that I believe will remain in the secular realm of mbira activity.

    2. Hi Peter, I don’t play mbira but have always loved the music and the sound of the instrument. I am not Shona so the spirituality aspect of it all is quite lost on me. I understand it’s important though. Having said that, I do feel that mbira music is just that too. It is music, and for a musician like me, that’s what draws me to it. When I listen to mbira music on Youtube for example, I’m taken aback by how overbearing the buzzing are on many of those recordings. I feel the same about some professional mbira recordings I have heard. Surely, there has to be a balance? I know that I will ruffle many feathers with what I’ve said already. I am astonished by the mbira’s potential for being an unaccompanied solo instrument, and I’m totally flabbergasted that more is not done to take it there. The tradition with the buzzing, singing and all else is an already firmly established tradition. Perhaps it is also time to develop the instrument and the music from a purely musical perspective. The kora has gone there. So has the piano and classical guitar etc, and I would love to see the same with the mbira. It is already how I hear mbira music in any case. I have no intention to offend anyone with anything I have said, so please accept my apologies in advance if there is any offence. Long live the cross rhythms of the mbira!!!

  3. I had to chuckle at the “original beautiful and clear sound” line myself. I like the idea of the sequencer, and I have thought the same that in my ample spare time, it’d be cool to have a little web-based app for full marimba band where you could plug in the individual parts and play them all back-similar to how I arrange for marimba on a desktop now.
    Thanks for the tweet!

  4. It would be perfect for teaching songs. They could have certain keys light up and you follow along. So a complete beginner working on this in the subway would eventually be able to pick up a real mbira and start playing. As a non-playing but interested party, I’d be extremely interested in buying an app like that.

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