Is it important at all that a mbira looks good or only the sound matters? After all, isn’t the sound more important since whenever mbira is played people tend to only see the deze and concentrate on hearing the sound?

mbira, zvembira

Looking back to the beginnings of my mbira journey, I remember vividly the wild arrangement of the keys on the mbira I played. Not only did I have to concentrate on getting the songs right, I had to concentrate extra hard to actually play the keys! Some keys were too short and some were long, not the even gradient that you get on most well made mbiras. Surprise surprise though, it had a superb sound, definitely one of the best I’ve ever played. It sang to me when I played it! It’s a pity I didn’t own it. I am confident that it would be my number one mbira for sentimental and sound reasons now!

When learning to play, I think it is essential to have an instrument that sounds good and is well tuned. My first mbira teacher (the late Samson Zvinavashe, or Jongwe as we was more commonly known) was quite insistent that I should listen to a song ‘properly’ before I even had a glimpse of his thumb and finger movements. I had to recognise the melody of the song first. As we didn’t have any recording device available to us, he would occasionally ask me to hum the melody of the song to him before he taught me the song. His argument was quite simple, it’s music to be heard not seen! So it was essential to him that I was able to listen to the songs and not just become a ‘technical key strummer’ as he would put it. Under those circumstances, it was therefore crucial that the mbira I played was well tuned and sounded good to enable me to properly listen to the song.
I think my initial learning process would have been easier if the mbira’s keys were arranged more evenly! I’m sure that most of us have come across mbiras with uneven keys at some point and you would agree that they can be tough to play. This need not be the case when learning. I think for the beginner mbira student, playing on a nicely made mbira makes the process easier. You don’t have to second guess whether you are getting the right key or not. I have to however stress at this point though that not all nice looking mbiras are great mbiras. Some look very nice but they are just dead when it comes to sound. It might make the technical aspect of learning the key patterns easier but it might not sound good at all! Of course sound could be a preference thing but I hope the point I’m making is obvious.

When I play mbira I really appreciate playing a mbira that sounds good first and foremost but I get ecstatic when I play a mbira that sounds good AND looks great. I hope everyone could enjoy both!

2 Replies to “Should your mbira look good?”

  1. Your teacher sounds like a great teacher! All people learning mbira should be so lucky to be taught to listen!

    1. It was frustrating but good for me i think. I still cant learn a new piece until I am hearing properly in my head! One of the things that is really good now is access to mbira recordings that you can recommend to people to listen to. You can even look for recordings in the right key too. Jongwe was a great guy, we had so much fun together and i have many memorable mbira moments with him.

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