Posted by Kaitlin Meilert on 22nd May 2014

Zimbabwe Matepe Collection at X8 Drums

In addition to kalimbas and mbiras, X8 Drums now offers matepes! Since the matepe is his primary instrument, Joel Laviolette is back to demonstrate and tell us more about our unique collection of handmade matepes.

One of the things that makes the matepe so different from other mbiras is that it’s played with two thumbs and two index fingers. Each finger is playing a separate melody at the same time for a total of four independent melodies. When people first hear the matepe, it tends to sound like a wash of notes because there’s so much going on. But once you start to listen deeply and pick out those individual melodies, it’s an amazing sound.

Another big difference between the matepe and other mbiras is that the bass notes of the matepe are tuned to be two octaves above the fundamental bass. This allows the overtone of the low bass note to interact with the high notes so that it sounds like two different instruments are playing at once.

Unlike other mbiras, the matepe is also hollowed out. Instead of a hole at the corner for your pinky, there’s a hollowing at the bottom. To hold the matepe, place your left pinky in that hollowing, then wrap your left hand around the instrument and grab the other side of the instrument with your right hand. Use your left thumb to play the bass notes and your right thumb to play the high notes on the upper right hand side.

All of the matepes at X8 Drums were made in Zimbabwe by Joel’s instructor Chaka Chawasarira. The matepes are made from mutiti, a much softer wood than the mukwa used for our mbiras. The mutiti wood helps create that hollow sound distinct to matepes. The mutiti soundboard is also hand-carved and features intricate carvings and burn patterns, all made by hand.

The jagged ridges at the top of the keys are mavembe, which means “crooked” and is also a type of mbira tuning. However, mavembe also refers to the way members of the Kore Kore tribe would file their teeth to a point. Chawasarira creates the mavembe ridges on the matepe to remember those Kore Kore ancestors.

Each matepe at X8 Drums looks, sounds, and feels a little different, but they all have the same lower tuning so that they can be played together. Each matepe is also handmade by either Chaka Chawasarira or his son, Chaka Jr. As you can hear in the video, Chawasarira’s matepes have more of a lush, fundamental, low-end sound while Chaka Jr.’s matepes have louder overtones with a high-end sparkle.

All of our matepes are wonderful instruments, but they’re also individualistic. If you want a specific matepe featured in the video, the best way to let us know is to look at the bottle caps and tell us their color order.