I mark key root notes with different colors – and this works on other instruments too!
The mbira dzavadzimu is one of the pinnacles of the traditional African lamellaphones (thumb pianos), and its music is rich and sweet. I consider the mbira and its music to be the highest intellectual wonder of ancient Africa. And we can learn to play this venerable music today in our modern world.
I have a confession to make: while I easily picked up the kalimba and taught myself to play, I have had a very difficult time with the mbira. I bought my first mbira more than 15 years ago, and while I tried many times, I could not even get started on this difficult instrument.
But something has changed, and I am suddenly progressing quickly on this instrument that eluded me for so long.
I am pleased to say that I have played mbira dzavadzimu (or mbira, for short) every day for the last two months. I have overcome whatever was blocking me from progressing on this instrument – let us say that at last the spirits of the ancestors are smiling upon me.
Playing mbira will have a number of results for me and the Kalimba Magic community. It will ‘Africanize’ my kalimba playing. As I learn more mbira songs, I will produce more arrangements of traditional African songs for the karimba and the kalimba, along with my own variations of the traditional songs. And I will share with you some of the secrets of my success on this difficult instrument. Even though it is difficult, I am finding the mbira to be very worthwhile.
My first bit of mbira advice: mark the instrument’s various root notes with (removable ink) Sharpie marker. There are other possible modes on the mbira, each with their own root note. I think the most common root note is the one marked with red dots in the photo of an Erica Azim mbira to the left (the B notes on Erica Azim’s mbiras) for songs such as “Nyamaropa,” “Mahororo,” or “Kariga Mombe.” The next most common root notes are those with blue dots (the E notes on Erica Azim’s mbiras, ) for songs such as “Kuzanga.”
There are several books on playing mbira that utilize tablatures using numbers. Each tine on a particular course of the mbira (lower left, upper left, or right) is numbered ordinally, and the song is taught by reference to those numbers. A student (that would be me) is tempted to put those numbers on the tines with Sharpie markers. However, while I did start out playing that way, I have actually done better with my mbira painted with the red and blue dots.
The various red dot tines are all B notes – there are B notes in four different octaves, and a 5th B note exactly doubles one of the other B note’s pitch. Similarly, the different blue dots are all E notes, in three different octaves. I find that I don’t have to think too much about this (dotted) layout, but I find that tines with numbers do leave me thinking too much. In mbira music, I aim to be getting away from thinking. I aim to embed the patterns of this music into the depths of my brain and digits. I aim to enter into some sort of dream world, where my body plays on its own.
By the way, this system of marking works on many different instruments – including harp, marimba, and kalimba. I would mark the “1” and the “5” notes in two different colors to help you navigate the instrument.
Of course, I believe in the goal of eventually having no markings on my mbira. I aim to be masterful enough in my music that I will be able to easily play a bare naked mbira.