The short answer is that these instruments belong to a huge family of instruments that are found all over Africa. Mbira has been used as a generic name for the entire family – so a kalimba is a kind of mbira. You will often find souvenir type instruments in African markets with a few keys that look quite rustic but these instruments are seldom playable. Handmade instruments that are capable of making music are not often seen for sale. The family of instruments is found across the length and breadth of Africa and four main names (and their derivatives) are used depending on the region: mbira (around Zimbabwe), kalimba (Mozambique, Zambia, and Malawi), likembe (further north around central Africa), and sanzhi (West Africa). And, as you would expect in a family with a lot of diverse instruments, there are many variations of these names, and other local names for particular instruments.
Essentially, an mbira is held in both hands and played primarily with the thumbs, but the larger instruments also use the 2nd finger which plucks the notes from the bottom, upwards. In this enormous family, there are many, many different kinds of mbira. If we make some broad generalisations about the different instrument types, then mbiras vary in the following ways:
As far as construction goes, instruments have different kinds of resonators or soundboards. These can be a solid piece of wood that is either flat or has been hollowed out or shaped in some way, or it can be box shaped with a hollow resonating space. Sometimes the soundboard is made from a tin, so it is not always wood.
There are some instruments with just a few keys and some with many. The number of keys varies from just 3 to over 50! When an mbira has many keys, they will usually be laid out in more than one row so that they fit on the soundboard and can still be reached easily with the thumbs and fingers. Keys can be made of metal or some kind of plant product – like bamboo or strips of stiff plant fibre. These are set over a bridge so that they will resonate freely when played.
Many mbira have some kind of buzzing device. For instance, metal rings around the keys, or metal bottle tops on the soundboard. These add a layer to the sound that is part of the aesthetic. A small mbira from the Lala region of Zambia called kankowela had a small hole in the sound board covered by a piece of spider egg sac. This gave a gentle shhhhh-like buzz, and accented the harmonics of the metal keys of the instrument. (I’d love to know if anyone reading this knows whether kankowela are still played in Zambia!)
To add to the resonance and increase the volume, some mbira are held inside a resonating box or calabash as they are played. These can also have some kind of buzzing device attached to them – like shells or metal bottle tops.
Tuning follows the preferences of the local area, so scales vary between 5, 6, or 7 note scales. Some instruments have only one octave – perhaps 8 notes only, and the bigger instruments have up to 4 octaves. The music played on these instruments is as varied as the instruments themselves, and their regions, but is mostly cyclic, with shorter or longer cycles.
Differences in construction effect the kind of music that can be played on each instrument. Different instruments have had different roles in their original communities, sometimes they’re played by individuals wanting to keep themselves company, sometimes for a group, perhaps to tell stories, and sometimes they are associated with ancestors which gives them a much greater spiritual significance. As with most African traditional instruments, their music is often accompanied by singing. Many mbira, sadly, have become steadily rarer with new generations not keeping up the traditions of playing and making them. This is not the case in Zimbabwe, where the mbira tradition is still very strong. The mbira dza vudzimu and the Nyunga Nyunga, both from Zimbabwe, have become hugely popular internationally amongst musicians and they are also taught in University ethnomusicology programmes.
Back in the 1950s, the founder of AMI, Hugh Tracey, believed that they would have international appeal if they were made commercially available. His design for the AMI kalimba was the result of lots of experimentation and drew on the central African instruments, called kalimba and karimba. He settled on using the name kalimba and chose the Western G Major scale for its tuning. From there, kalimbas went global. Commercial variations are too plentiful to count, but Tracey’s basic design, still used by AMI and copied exactly by Chinese manufacturers, is enduring. Although based on traditional instruments, modern kalimbas are hybrid instruments – their construction and tuning are designed for ease of playing and most often to fit in with Western scales. The AMI kalimba’s Western tuning makes it very easy to pick out tunes. It’s lovely sound – a mixture of a bell and a harp – makes it a rewarding instrument to play for all sorts of reasons. Melodies sound wonderful and harmonies can be added very easily. The AMI karimba is not tuned to the Western major scale but uses a Zimbabwean tuning. Its 17 keys are arranged in two ranks, or manuals, and it can be played with the thumbs alone, or using the 2nd fingers as well. Lastly, rings around the keys give it a satisfying buzz.
The mbira is a uniquely African instrument and it is really rewarding to learn. If you’re lucky enough to have an authentic mbira of some kind, as well as a way to learn (YouTube is a good start), there are many online groups that you can join. Commercially produced AMI kalimbas are also a great option. They sound beautiful, and whatever tuning you go for, there are endless musical possibilities waiting to be discovered.