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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!