Building the mbira buzz

On the bottom edge of the instrument, they write their names in colored marker. Or they carve their names on the back, names like Newtan Chihota or Gift Rushambwa. With hands and thumbs dark as bordeaux, a Zimbabwean mbira craftsman like Gift Rushambwa might first cut and chisel a soundboard, or gwariva. This book-sized gwariva is made of a hardwood whose name translates as “you came from blood.” Also known as bloodwood, the tree gets its name from nothing more sinister than the red sap that flows from its bark when it has been cut.

Into the bloodwood soundboard, the mbira craftsman mounts 22 to 28 tuned metal strips on three manuals, or rows, of keys – two rows on the left, one on the right. “The keys are often slightly curved, resting over a bridge, so that they are raised from the soundboard in the direction of the performer,” says Berliner in The Soul of Mbira. “A crossbar holds the keys in place tightly enough so that they can 622px-mbira_dzavadzimube moved forward and backward over the bridge for tuning.” In addition, the rows of metal tongues line up across the tray-shaped soundboard with a sanded finger hole in the lower right corner. 

At the very bottom of the gwariva, below the tongue-like keys, below the finger hole, the mbira maker attaches shells, metal beads, or bottle caps to a metal plate.  These produce the buzzing vibration that is an essential part of the music. The buzzing clears the mind of thoughts and worries so that the music can fill the consciousness of performers and listeners. “This quality is appreciated by African musicians in the same way that Westerners appreciate the sounds of the snares on a snare drum or the fuzz-tone on an electric guitar,” says Berliner. “It may be seen as analogous to the mist that partly obscures the mountains and small figures of certain Chinese silk-screen paintings … establishing mood and feeling, and the figures are not supposed to be seen more clearly.”

Mbira lesson No. 3: The Shona believe the buzz attracts the ancestral spirits.

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