Kalimba (Mbira) or Thumb Piano


Some native African instruments allow solo harmonization, although harmony in African music serves only as an embellisment or variation to the given theme. The most sophisticated of these primitive instruments is the sanza, or mbira.

There are a variety of similar instruments in different regions of Africa. The appropriated names are: e.g. kalimba in Kenya, ikembe in Rhuanda, likembe in Congo and mbira in Zimbabwe.

The kalimba is made from a board box or calabash: wooden or metal keys are attached to the top. The kalimba is a lamellaphone of Eastern Central and South West Africa.

The lamellaphone can be a solo instrument (e.g. in Zimbabwe) but commonly, this popular African instrument is played as an accompaniment to singers, musicians and dancers. The mbira is also known as the "thumb piano," because one uses his thumbs to 'pluck' the metal strips that are keyed to particular notes.

The "thumb piano" consists of a number of split cane metal tongues (10 or more) over a wooden resonator, the tongues are supported by a lateral bar. Often, the thumb-piano is made from old spoon handles, bicycle spokes or spring wire that is cut and hammered to the desired shape.

Classifying the thumb piano into the percussion family, the sanza is frequently called as a plucked ideophone. However, this is not accurate: you don't pluck but rather depress and release the lamellas (tongues) with your thumbs and fingers.


Traditionally used to accompany singing in Africa, the kalimba or sanza is relatively easy to play, and became popular in the West for instrumental music. 

However, the sound of the kalimba is now found on most digital samplers.  It isn't unusual at all that two ikembes play together: one covers the melodic accompaniment of the vocalist, while the other plays the bassline (or bourdon).  

Use a western melodical instrument to check out and to enjoy the pitches of the lamellaphone. If you don't like to lose the authentic feeling of african tuning, please don't tune the metal keys immediately into our diatonic or chromatic scale. To facilitate your microtonal proves, you can first draw the tongues of the sanza on paper. Then, discriminate the tuning of thumb-keys comparing with the chromatic scale: each key belongs to a normal detuned pitch; there are 4 micro-levels: flat b - bb - sharp # - ##.

You 'll discover that the left area isn't exactly the same image (in reverse) of the metal tongues on the right side.

Last but not least: while our western music industry is obsessed by sophisticated noiseless recording and extremely clean samples without aliasing, the native African musicians and dancers don't care about noise, or tonality. On the contrary, they add some small metal covers over the sanza-keys, especially to augment the raw vibrating effect of the attack. Look at the picture on the right.

Please "clean" and refresh your western ears to enter the original sensibility for melody and rhythm in the African world.