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Chokwe (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Thumb Piano (mbira)

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Object Details

Culture

Chokwe (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Medium

wood and metal

Dimensions

Height: 7 inches (17.8 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of William W. Brill

Object
Number

82.074.013

BRIEF DESCRIPTIONThe mbira is a popular traditional instrument found in many parts of Africa. It is (…)

BRIEF DESCRIPTIONThe mbira is a popular traditional instrument found in many parts of Africa. It is called by many names, including sanza, likembe, kalimba and mbira, and comes in a variety of forms.WHERE WAS IT MADE?This mbira is attributed to the Chokwe, who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the neighboring countries of Angola and Zambia. HOW WAS IT MADE?An mbira is typically made by the musician who plays it. In Chokwe culture, men always make instruments, a skill they learn (along with how to sing and dance) during their most important ritual of mukanda, the rite of passage that prepares a boy for manhood.HOW WAS IT USED?The mbira is mostly played by individual musicians who sing along to accompany their playing, though sometimes it is played with other instruments in an ensemble. To play the mbira, a musician holds the soundboard with both hands while he plucks the keys with his thumbs and sometimes his index fingers.WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS?The instrument consists of several metal pieces or “tongues” (called dare) held with a tension rod and wire fit to a base that serves as a sounding board. The length of the tongues determines the pitch of each. Oftentimes, small bits of tin are wrapped around some or all of the tongues causing them to vibrate sympathetically and resulting in a pleasant buzzing sound. Most mbiras are built with some sort of amplifying device, such as a calabash. This mbira has no such component.Look at the lower portion of the mbira; Chokwe mbiras are known for their incised decoration. This carving technique is combined with a pyrographic method of decorating in which a metal rod is heated and then set into the wood, forming the six small circles on the soundboard.The simple design of this mbira suggests that it was intended for personal use. Alison Coplan, ‘11, contributed to this entry.

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