Music of Zimbabwe: the Mbira


The mbira is a lamellaphone, that is, an instrument with plucked metal “tongues” or keys mounted on a soundboard. Sometimes known in the West as a thumb piano, instruments like this can be found all over Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. It is with the music of the Shona of Zimbabwe in Southeastern Africa where this instrument and its music are highly developed. The Shona play different kinds of lamellaphones that are associated with various regions of Zimbabwe, each with their own names, playing techniques and scale patterns. The 22-key mbira is the most popular. Playing techniques on the mbira exhibit several musical characteristics that can be found all over Africa in many different contexts and on different instruments. These include:

  1. Interlocking: fitting pitches and beats into the spaces left in another part, or alternating phrases or pitches of one part with those of another to create a whole.
  2. Call-and-response: the alternation of leader and chorus or vocal and instrumental parts.
  3. An aesthetic preference for dense overlapping textures.
  4. Buzzy timbres.
  5. Musical form is often cyclic, made up of repeated melodies or rhythmic patterns which vary gradually as a performance progresses, creating a complex relationship between repetition and variation.
  6. Repetition and long performances encourage community participation so that non-specialized performers can be included.
  7. Rhythmic complexity often involves polyrhythms, where pulses that are organized in groups of two are simultaneously performed with pulses that are organized in threes. Depending on one’s focus, these layered rhythms can be heard in various ways.
  8. Improvisation. Music played on the mbira is often open-ended in duration and played differently at each performance due to the practice of improvisation. These improvisations are based on a common stock of musical resources.



Moyo Rainos Mutamba, PhD

Moyo Mutamba grew up mostly in Zimbabwe, immersed in drumming and dance. He fell in love with the mbira from hearing his great-uncle play at family gatherings and from recordings of mbira masters. He also studied with several mbira masters, among them, internationally celebrated mbira players Mbuya Chiweshe, Forward Kwenda, Garikayi Tirikoti and Alois Mutinhiri. Recently, he returned to Zimbabwe for a three-month mbira mentorship immersion. He is in high demand as an mbira workshop leader and lecturer.

With a PhD in Social Justice Education, Moyo currently lectures at the School Social Work, University of Waterloo.



An understanding of the following terms would be helpful before proceeding with the Video Content.

  • Mbira
  • Hosho
  • Polyrhythm
  • Call-and-response
  • Interlocking
  • Vocables
  • Shona


Video Content

Moyo demonstrates and discusses the physical characteristics of the mbira as well as its repertoire, playing techniques, aesthetics, improvisational practices, and music theory. He describes and provides examples of the vocal aspect of the tradition and its performance contexts. There is also a discussion of the mbira’s cultural meaning in traditional Shona culture, the impact of European and American influences, and more recent uses of mbira in urban contexts.


Transcript: Music of Zimbabwe


Video Time Cues

  • 0:06 Introduces himself and shows the mbira 
  • 1:09 Demonstrates how to play the mbira 
  • 2:54 Demonstrates how to play the melody
  • 4:00 Improvisation
  • 4:15 Demonstrates each mbira part in isolation
  • 6:05 Demonstrates variations
  • 8:11 Playing with others/Call-and-response/Interlocking
  • 9:43 Moyo plays with his son
  • 11:24 Learning how to play
  • 12:40 Mbira tunings
  • 16:25 The gourd, other instruments, singing and dancing
  • 19:49 Mbira with a gourd/singing
  • 22:58 Singing
  • 23:25 Discussion of improvisation
  • 28:00 Demonstration of improvisation
  • 30:20 Changing intensity
  • 35:41 Musical groupings/Call -and-response/Interlocking
  • 43:15 Performance contexts/Ceremonies
  • 46:24 Who plays mbira?
  • 47:36 Melodic direction/playing and singing
  • 51:55 Repertoire, style, words, Western influence
  • 53:24 Vocables
  • 55:32 Tunings and modes
  • 1:01:06 Demonstration of different modes
  • 1:02:45 Cross-tuning in urban mbira music
  • 104:05 Names of modes
  • 106:08 Mbira and culture/Ceremony, dance, way of being
  • 1:09:35 Mbira and urban music/Thomas Mapfumo
  • 1:13:30 Mbira repertoire


Suggested Activities and Assessments


Create a limited-access wiki of the terms and their definitions listed in the Terminology section above. Students can work individually to create their own “wiki” as text files, or in teams (e.g., through a course website). Students are asked to research the meanings, and if relevant, the history of these terms.


    1. Polyrhythm practice exercise
      The instructor repeatedly counts six even pulses. The first few times the instructor claps every two beats creating three claps in six beats, resulting in three sets of two beats each. Then the instructor claps every three beats of the six-beat count, resulting in two claps in six beats, or two sets of three beats each.
      The following diagram illustrates:

      Table: Music of Zimbabwe Polyrhythms
      Two groups of three X x
      Beat 1 2 3 4 5 6
      Three groups of two x x x

      Next, the instructor divides the class into two equal-numbered groups and has them do the same – one group claps two groups of three, the other, three groups of two. First, each group does their part alone, then the two groups perform their parts simultaneously while the instructor repeatedly counts six beats. Then have the groups switch rhythms. If possible, each group should use a different sound. For example, one group can clap, the other can tap on their desks with a pen or pencil. Next the instructor demonstrates two groups of three in one hand and three groups of two in the other. Have the class try it. Ask for volunteers to try it individually.
      Listen to one of the demonstrations on the video. Count it in two, then in three. Have the class try it.

    1. Quiz: Game show
      Is this in two, three, both, or neither?
      The instructor plays various rhythms from Africa, Latin American, and the Caribbean, some of which are polyrhythmic, some of which are not. Students must determine which.
    1. Debate
      Has Western influence been good for mbira music? This debate topic involves an examination of how one defines “good,” and the nature of Western influence on mbira music.


Moyo discusses the contexts in which one can find mbira music (see Performance contexts/Ceremonies in the Video Time Cues section above). Compare and contrast the various contexts, those mentioned in the video and others if you can find them.






Beyond the Classroom: World Music from the Musician's Point of View Copyright © 2022 by University of Guelph is licensed under a Ontario Commons License – No Derivatives, except where otherwise noted.

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