This one time, at Mbira Camp

Mbira Camp, January 6, 2008
I’ve picked out an mbira. This musical instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe has 24 keys, with hammered metal bottle tops mounted on a metal bar at the bottom of the hardwood soundboard, or gwariva.

The gwariva has a hole in the bottom right corner through which the little finger of my right hand pokes to stabilize the instrument while I play, allowing my right thumb and index finger to pluck the high notes from above and below the keys. The bottle caps create a buzzing sound when I play the instrument. This buzz is believed to attract the ancestral spirits, and is considered an essential part of the mbira sound, required to clear the mind of thoughts and worries so that the mbira music can fill the consciousness of the performers and listeners. The buzz adds depth and context to the clear tones of the mbira keys, and may be heard as whispering voices, singing, tapping, knocking, wind or rain.

The keys of my mbira seem to be made of spoon handles. The instrument’s craftsman, Newtan Chihota, signed his name in blue marker on the bottom edge of the gwariva. It leaves a blue tattoo-like splotch on my knees, where the soundboard sits as I play. In the first three days of this weeklong Mbira Camp, I’ve learned parts of two songs: Taireva, which means, “we need to tell you,”  and Kariga Mombe, “one who can throw a bull to the ground,” or simply, “undefeatable.”
Mbira Camp, January 7, 2008
I so love the sequencing, how the chosen keys, played in an order, create a song, dictating not just the harmony and melody, but the rhythm, the words, and the dance, too. All are related, and all are born of the sequence of keys played to make music.

The joy I get from practicing a sequence, from trusting my thumbs to plink the correct keys, their metal tongues all out, all asking to be fed, like baby birds in the nest. That joy reminds me of the joy in rock climbing, puzzling out the sequences with my body; or of math before calculus stomped my buzz; or of the way words fit together in lines on the page, their letters linked like turns on a slalom course.

Some of the mbira songs sound like rain before a storm really picks up. Or, like hummingbirds ascending, their spiraling flight patterns buzzing ever higher.

Many of the songs have a plaintive quality, asking a resounding Why? Why? Why?



6 thoughts on “This one time, at Mbira Camp

  1. I enjoyed your post. I am also an mbira player. My first lesson was with Bob Becker way back in ’75. Would you send me the website for more workshops? Is this your Mbira… it is beautiful. I want one.


  2. Hey I am an mbira teacher based in Brighton UK but I am currently developing individual lessons via audio and video. Please get in touch if you would like to buy and mbira or get involved with some lessons!

    I learnt under Chartwell Dutiro who is also based in the South of England, if you get the chance to buy one of his CDs or books I would recommend it.

    I really enjoyed reading your stuff by the way, what a wicked idea!

    Take care

    Emily 🙂

  3. Based in the east midlands,i’ve played before as a novice in zim. Id like to start again but cant get a hold of an instrument.can you tell me where i can buy a solid 24 key mbira,new or used as long as its intact.

  4. hie everyone im glad to see someone reccomending my work of Mbira Making..Im Newtan Chihota From Zimbabwe in Southern Africa..Im Good in making Mbiras with the Nyamaropa Tuning…i have worked with Ted Wright from Canada,Dan Shoom from Canada and so many from america..Im free to send you my Mbiras if you are interested..for more information you can send me an email at

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