Mbira lesson No. 2: Never call it a thumb piano.

Thwinka … thwinka … thwinka, goes the ceiling fan overhead, its blades slicing the thick, tropical air in the same rhythm as my pulsing temple.  Squeezed up against the armrest of a palm-patterned couch in a private home in Kailua, Hawaii, I am surrounded by a dozen mbira players. They all have their instruments, tucked either in their laps or somewhere close enough to caress. My lap is empty. I sit on my hands and try to explain what has brought me to Mbira Camp, a weeklong intensive course on how to play the primary traditional instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

 

“Someone who knew I was interested in thumbs asked if I’d ever heard of a thumb piano.” The room itself seems to hold its breath. Several pairs of eyes flick to Erica Azim, the course instructor.

 

Thwinka … thwinka … thwinka …

 

“So. I went. To a Zimbabwean music festival. For, like, two hours. And saw half a dozen marimba bands, and …”

 

Thwinka … thwinka … thwinka …

 

“That’s how I first learned about mbira.”

 

I can feel Janet, the woman on the couch next to me, relax her shoulders when I say “mbira.”

 

Like a piano, the mbira (pronounced mm-beer′ah) has keys. But further similarities between the two instruments drift apart – as far apart as Africa from the Western world. The Shona mbira’s full name, mbira dzavadzimu, means “mbira of the ancestral spirits.” But the people simply refer to it as “mbira.” The term “thumb piano” originated from Christian missionaries who wanted to see the mbira as just another musical gizmo, rather than as an important spiritual conduit. A basic tenet of Shona religion says that after people die, their spirits continue to affect the living. “In other words,” says ethnomusicologist Paul F. Berliner, “the world of the living is a function of the workings of the spirit.”1 The people cherish the karimba-like instrument as a sort of telephone to their ancestors, and they believe that the ancestral spirits call a person to mbira for a reason.

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