Mbira Song “Chaminuka”

New tablature for mbira dzavadzimu, plus tabs for Hugh Tracey Alto and B flat Treble Kalimbas

Click to download tablature for the mbira song “Chaminuka”

Chaminuka was a real person, a renowned Zimbabwean prophet who foretold the coming of white European colonialists.  After his death, he became a popular ancestral spirit to channel.  Mbira dzavadzimu were and still are used in these ceremonies.

While researching Chaminuka for the Chiwoniso article, I learned that there are at least two totally different songs by this name: “Chaminuka” for the karimba by Chiwoniso, and an unrelated song for the mbira dzavadzimu.  The mbira “Chaminuka” is the classic pattern described by Andrew Tracey in his seminal work “The System of the Mbira.”  I have notated it in my new (and evolving) mbira tablature, and you can also play it on the Bb Treble kalimba and the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba.  I supply all three of these tablatures to you for free!


That would be “Chaminuka” you hear in the background, as played by KTabS, the Kalimba Tablature Software.

Sharing mbira music through notation has not been developed, and there are not many good options for mbira notation. Staff notation (the traditional western method of musical notation) is exact, but most mbira people cannot really read staff notation.

If you listened to Erica Azim (an American authority on playing mbira), you would never touch any type of mbira notation because the only way you can be sure you are getting the traditional article is if you learn the song looking over the shoulder of an African.

B. Michael Williams and Andy Fowler both have numbers-based tablatures for learning to play the mbira, and their books are fairly popular. I do not like to use numbers-based tablatures at all; I just don’t want to be using that part of my brain while I play music.

While I generally love graphical kalimba tablature (which I originated), extending it to the mbira is problematic for a few reasons.  The biggest problem is obviously the large number of tines on the mbira, 

However, I have made a few modifications in my tablature for mbira. Among these is the placement of color-coded dots that help you keep your place on the instrument and help you transfer notes from tablature to instrument. In addition, placement of tiny mbira diagrams help keeps tablature with so many notes from becoming unwieldy. I believe these and other features make the tablature workable.  Here is the mbira tablature for Chaminuka, and I invite you to give it a try:


Mbira tablature for “Chaminuka.”  Click to download the PDF for this tablature.

Here are some of the features that I believe make this tablature workable for mbira dzavadzimu:

  • First, unlike most of my kalimba tablature, this runs from TOP to BOTTOM. I inverted the tablature for a very particular reason. On the mbira it is common to pluck an upper-left tine and slide down to next pluck a lower-left tine, and with the tablature reading from top to bottom, the geometry of this upper-left to lower-left plucking motion on the tablature is aligned with the motion on the mbira itself, and is therefore easier for the mind to transfer from page to hand to instrument.
  • There are so many mbira tines that the tablature could be overwhelming.  I reduce the complexity of the tablature first by representing the lower-left tines as gray columns in the tab.
  • The complexity is further lessened by my practice of putting red dots and blue dots on the tines that correspond to the two most-used key notes for mbira songs. This makes it easier to transfer the note from the tablature to the mbira. Tiny mbira diagrams, complete with gray lower left tines and red and blue dots, are reproduced both at the top and at the bottom of the tablature staves. You can add the red and blue dots to your mbira with a Sharpie marker – the color can be wiped off with alcohol wipes.
  • If you download the PDF of the tablature, you will find that it includes links to a YouTube video and to an MP3 file of this song. If your PDF is on your computer and not printed on paper, you can just click on those links to have your web browser bring you to the URL, so you can hear and see how this song goes.
  • I have spaced out the tines rather generously, expanding the entire four-phrase music to fill both staves. The extra space in between the notes makes the tablature easier to read.
  • Playing mbira is all about incremental position changes of your thumbs and right index finger on the tines. Let’s assume you start with your thumbs on the correct tines. Then as you go DOWN the tablature, you see the relative motions you must make to accomplish the song. For example, the right index finger starts on the “blue dot” tine E, and plays that same tine four times – that is, don’t move. Next, the right finger moves one tine at a time toward the left, three times. The big jumps are the moves that you need to take slowly and practice.
  • One weakness of this tablature is that it does not distinguish between the right and left thumb, or between the right thumb and right index finger. You just need to know that the left thumb plays from the two central “red dot” B’s all the way to the far left. The right thumb only plays three tines, the D#, B, and C# adjacent to the two central “red dot” tines. The right index finger plays all other right side tines, from D# on up.

Diagram indicating which tines are typically played by the two thumbs and the right index finger.

If you have an mbira dzavadzimu, I invite you to download the PDF and give this a try. I do realize, of course, that this odd new tablature will be easier for me than anyone else, because I invented it myself and I naturally think in terms of this tablature. But what about you? Do you find this tablature easier or harder than other methods of learning mbira songs? Your opinion matters. I’d love to hear back from you on this.

In addition to making the mbira tablature, I have also translated this song over to both the Bb Treble kalimba and the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba. For this song the Bb Treble is better than the Alto, as it goes two notes higher in the scale than the Alto, and the melody really needs one of those extra notes. The Alto must fake its way through that part of the song, but is still playable and makes sense.

Chaminuka tablature for B Flat Treble Kalimba

Chaminuka tablature for Alto Kalimba

There will be a few awkward reaches in the Alto and Bb Treble tablature – or more often, if two notes are played simultaneously and are separated by a 5th, you need to play them on the same side of the instrument, but leave a one-tine gap between the two notes. You have four different options: you can leave one note off; you can play one note with your thumb and the other with your index finger; you can do a glissando to play all three notes including the two from the mbira music plus the tine in between them (that wasn’t supposed to be played); or you may be able to cross over and play the two notes on the same side with your two thumbs.

More and more, I see this to be my core work at Kalimba Magic – learning traditional songs on the mbira dzavadzimu and transferring them over to kalimbas and karimbas. Kalimbas and karimbas are generally easier to play than the mbira because they have fewer notes, and good quality mbiras tend to be more than twice as expensive as the small kalimbas and karimbas.

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