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The Tranquil Sounds of the Traditional African Mbira

Traditional African mbiras are now available at X8 drums, so we though we'd take a moment to introduce you to this percussion instrument that has been part of African culture for over 800 years. Percussionist Joel Laviolette demonstrates the mbira in the video above. A seemingly simple instrument with an ethereal sound, the mbira is a soundboard made from gourd or wood with 6 to 33 wooden or metal keys attached on the top. Performers play the mbira by depressing and releasing the free ends of the keys with their fingers and hands. The keys, which are positioned at different lengths to create different pitches, can also be plucked for a performance effect.

When players depress and release the keys, the mbira produces a bell-like sound that has been described as fluid, tranquil, enchanting, and haunting. Some mbiras are placed inside resonators to enhance the sound. What’s really cool about the mbira, though, is its diversity. While the instrument can be played solo, the mbira produces both harmonic and rhythmic effects, which is why it’s often played with other mbiras. In fact, it’s the mbira’s complex rhythms and melodic variations that make its sound so captivating. The percussion instrument is also frequently accompanied by hosho players and singing.

The mbira is as diverse in design as it is in sound. You’ll find various versions of the mbira throughout Africa. They vary in appearance, size, materials, and tuning. For example, some tribes will use 6-note mbiras while others use a more sophisticated design with 33 notes. Various tribes and cultures also create unique mbira performance styles and even have different names for the mbira.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the exotic, tranquil sounds of the mbira. We sure do!

11th May 2014 Kaitlin Meilert

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