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The history of African lamellophones can be reconstructed by comparative studies of the instruments, the tunings, the music played on them and specifically by studying and comparing the words and technical terms used in different languages for the instruments, their parts, for techniques of playing and tuning them, aspects of the music and so on. Where available, oral traditions, historical documents and archaeological information can also be used. Using a broad range of such information, it is possible now to reconstruct the early history of lamellophones in some detail.

An excellent overview of what is known about the history of this class of instruments can be found in the following article:

Gerhard Kubik: “African and African American Lamellophones: History, Typology, Nomenclature, Performers, and Intracultural Concepts” in : Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje (editor): “Turn up the Volume! A Celebration of African Music”, edited by, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 1999, pages 20 – 57.

This post is mainly based on this article and concentrates on some aspects of the early history of lamellophones. In doing so, I will by far not exhaust this comprehensive, fascinating and enlightening article and I urge all readers to get access to a copy of it. More specifically, this post is based on the section “Reconstructing the Remote History of African Lamellophones” (pages 34 – 36) in Kubik’s article.

In this article Kubik (born 1934), an Austrian musicologist and a renowned expert of African music who for decades has been studying a variety of African musical cultures, summarizes what is known about the history and some other aspects of this class of musical instruments.

Musicologists, i.e. the scholars studying the music of different cultures and peoples, use the term “lamellophone” instead of specific terms like “Mbira” that refer to specific types of instruments used within certain areas or ethnic groups. The word “lamellophone”, on the other hand, is a neutral term used for the whole class of instruments. The use of the term “lamellophone” was proposed by Kubik in 1966 since the use of words derived from specific African languages, like “Mbira” or “Sanza” head lead to considerable confusion and since some other words used by Europeans, like “thumb piano” or “hand piano” where misleading as well. (The term “lamellaphone” that you can sometimes see on the web is a misspelling.)

According to the existing evidence, lamellophones where invented in the area that is today Cameroon and its surroundings, about 3000 years ago. The first lamellophones where made out of cane and raffia. Kubik calls the area the “raffia intensity zone” since raffia palms are traditionally important in this area as sources of fibers and other materials for a multitude of purposes. The raffia palm seems to have been instrumental in the invention. Kubik writes: “Strips from the epidermis of a raffia stem leaf almost automatically lend themselves to discovery of the principle of the lamellophone.” The invention predates the arrival of iron metallurgy in the area between 200 and 500 BCE and raffia-based instruments continued to be made and to be developed further. Kubik writes about this area: “Instruments with iron lamellae in this zone are of relatively recent (nineteenth- to twentieth-century) introduction”.

The instruments then spread, mainly by human migration, into different directions. Most importantly, with the spread of speakers of Bantu languages southward, the raffia-based lamellophone spread across the southern parts of Africa. Kubik writes: “The knowledge of making lamellophones […] spread across the subcontinent with the migration of western-stream Bantu languages speakers during the first centuries of our era. From Katanga it eventually reached the lower Zambezi valley and the Nyasa/Ruvuma culture area in Southeast Africa.”

The next step was the introduction of iron lamellae. This happened during the first millennium C.E. in three different areas: “the Katanga area (Shaba Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo)”, “the middle Zambezi/Zimbabwe area, that is, southern Zambia, Zimbabwe, and central Mozambique”, and “the lower Ruvuma area and highlands of the Makonde Plateau on the Indian Ocean cost in northeastern Mozambique and southeastern Tanzania”.

In the Zimbabwe/Zambezi area Iron-based lamellophones where then developed further. “With the refinement of iron technology beginning around 1000-1100 C.E […], the Zimbabwe/Zambesi culture area became a new center in lamellophone technology, ant it is here the most complex, multinote instruments were developed”. From the 15ths century on, this advanced lamellophone technology was then dispersed into Central Africa. Portuguese trading posts on the Zambezi played a role in this dispersal.

Kubik then reports an interesting theory – developed by musicologist Andrew Tracey – on the development of Lamellophones in the Zambezi/Zimbabwe area, including the Mbira Dza Vadzimu and the Nyunga Nyunga, but that will have to wait for another post.

(The picture is from