We recently introduced you to the traditional African mbira, a small instrument with a powerful tranquility. We think this unique percussion instrument is pretty cool and we'll soon be offering it at X8 Drums, so we asked percussionist Joel Laviolette to tell us more about the mbira. In the last mbira video we shared with you, Joel demoed the mbira. (By the way, the song Joel played in that video was “Nhemamusasa,” one of the first songs people usually learn on the mbira.) In this video, he talks about the mbira’s sound and design and his own mbira.
Joel plays traditional Zimbabwean style music, particularly the marimba, matepe, and mbira. Joel’s mbira, seen in the video, was handmade by his instructor in Zimbabwe, Newton Gwara (aka Matemai). While there are five main types of mbiras in Zimbabwe, this one is the mbira dzavadzimu with a high Nyamaropa tuning. What’s cool about this tuning is that it makes the mbira in tune with higher kalimbas, enabling percussionists to play the regular mbira along with kalimbas in orchestral style.
Every mbira instrument is a one-of-a-kind piece. Joel’s handmade mbira is made from beautiful Mukwa wood that his instructor got from old school desks from the ‘20s and ‘30s. The detailed craftsmanship of Joel’s mbira features two pieces of wood joined together by a third piece of wood placed between the two main pieces.
You’re probably wondering what those bottle caps on the front of the soundboard are for. Well, if you play a note, you’ll hear a buzzing sound—what Joel calls “the original distortion pedal.” The bottle caps create that buzz. When people first hear the mbira, they’re often distracted by that buzzing sound, but it’s an intentional part of the music. The more you play the mbira, the more you’ll get used to that sound and the more necessary it will become. In fact, if you don’t hear that buzzing sound when you’re playing, it doesn’t sound right because that buzzing adds a percussive element.
The keys are an especially intriguing part of the mbira. When people first see mbira keys, the first question they’ll ask is, “Are those made out of spoons?” They’re actually made from steel rod that’s pounded on an anvil, then filed, all by hand. In addition to creating an ethereal sound, the mbira’s keys tell us how old the mbira is. Mbira keys that have been found in the Zimbabwean ruins date back to 1,000 years. It’s pretty cool to know that a traditional African instrument that’s over 1,000 years old is still enjoyed by various cultures across the world today.