What is an Mbira?

The mbira is a 6”or larger hardwood sound board from the mubvamaropa tree with three octaves of attached hand hammered tines, in various tunings. It is usually  classified as part of the lamellophone family. It is sometimes, in our country, called a thumb piano. It originated in Africa and is still taught in the schools there today. 

The mbira dzaVadzimu “mbira of the ancestral spirits” is used in traditional ceremonies called “bira” in which the community comes together to play, sing, dance, drum together all night to call spirits to the present. The music is powerful, meditative and spiritual.

It became popular in this country in the 1980’s through the music of Thomas Mapfumo and Dumisani Maraire. The music has spread across our nation from the Pacific Northwest. We are fortunate to have access to many gwenyambira (mbira masters) who travel from Zimbabwe to teach us this precious music. Nel has studied with an impressive list of teachers, including Cosmos Magaya, Forward Kwenda, Erica Azim, Musekiwa Chingodza, Patience Chaitezvi, Ambuya Bueler Dyoko, and Chaka Mhemberi.

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Taireva is a very very old (maybe a 1000 years old!) mbira piece played in traditional Shona ceremonies. Its translation is about our ancestors or elders  “we have been telling you”, but we do not listen. Another translation could be “good advice from our ancestors was not followed.” Although this theme seems especially relevant in today’s world, the message is an old one.

In most mbira songs, there are many interlocking and layered parts and vocal lines.  We have barely scratched the surface with the mbira lines in our arrangement. In the song "You're My Flower/ Taireva", we have fused an ancient traditional  Shona song with Tim’s Americana love song.

The singing lines in our arrangement are mostly “vocables” or words with little meaning, like a “la la la” or “dum de dum”. They are meaningful sounds  sung without a necessary meaning. In Taireva, as in other Shona music, the vocables add much to the layered intricate rhythms in the song. 

For in depth info about the instrument, the culture and origins, read the Soul of Mbira by Paul Berliner; listen to field recordings at; recordings of various Zimbabwean artists at Zimbabwe: Soul of Mbira; and more about the music and culture at

With utmost humble respect love and thanks to all Zimbabwean teachers for the marvelous gift of this music.  


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