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Believe your ears: ritual and resonance.

I recently acquired a wonderful CD of traditional mbira music from the Shona people of Zimbabwe. An mbira (em-beer'-ah) is a relatively simple, plucked percussion instrument that is comprised of one or two rows of metal tongues attached to a wooden soundboard. The generic term "thumb piano" is often given to these instruments, because the metal keys are plucked with the thumbs.

The mbira is an important component of both personal meditation and community celebration. In the liner notes, Paul Berliner (who recorded the music) gives some background: "From the earliest times, the mbira has played an integral role in Shona culture. Sixteenth century missionary accounts describe its use in courts, providing music for the praise of kings and for entertainment. To this day, musicians perform the instrument at a traditional religious ceremony called a bira, in which villagers consult their ancestral spirits and make ritual offerings to them."

The interlocking rhythmic and melodic structure of traditional mbira music has two distinct parts -- one part is called kushaura ("to start") and the other is called kutsinhira ("to follow"). Essentially, the two musical lines are interlocked in such a way that the strong beat (or down beat) of one instrument is the offbeat (or up beat) for the other.

Nine selections are offered on the CD, which has been remastered from the original 1972 field recording. Examples include solo mbira pieces, songs for mbira & voice, and ensemble pieces for two mbiras with shaker accompaniment.

What struck me about the mbira (apart from the beauty and the intricate rhythms of the music itself) is that the instrument requires a gourd resonator in order to be heard properly. Almost always, the mbira is mounted inside a dried, hollowed out gourd. The round cavity of the gourd amplifies and enriches what would otherwise be small, metallic plucking sounds. After listening to the music of the mbira, I realized what an important role resonators play in the sound of many instruments. In most cases, the resonator is so ingrained into the design of the instrument that its function can be overlooked.

Last fall, I purchased a North Indian drone instrument -- a long-necked lute called a tamboura. The long wooden neck is hollow, and is attached at the base to a seasoned, well-lacquered pumpkin gourd resonator. The largest component of the guitar is the resonator, which is basically a wooden box with a sound hole. Violins, cellos and basses wouldn't sound like much without the hollow wooden body that provides the resonance. A drum skin that is not attached to a drum body (or resonator) has no volume, no power, and no resonance.

As someone who enjoys experimenting with homemade instruments, I've learned that resonators make a huge difference in the sound of my invented creations. Stretching elastics over a resonant item (such as a cookie tin or a wooden box) to make a simple "harp" will lend much better results than stretching the same elastics over a flat surface with no sound cavity. In addition, placing homemade instruments inside a resonator such as a large cooking pot or mixing bowl is an easy way to get the most sound from even the smallest items. So if you're not happy with the sounds you're getting on a small instrument that you've made yourself, place it inside a resonator and hear what happens.

The CD, "Zimbabwe: The Soul of Mbira" is available from Nonesuch Records, a division of Warner Music, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019 USA.

Ken Shorley is a composer and performer who specializes in hand drums and stringed instruments from around the world. Contact him at Box 479, Wolfville NS B0P 1X0 or by email at
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Author:Shorley, Ken
Publication:Natural Life
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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