Thumb piano (mbira)

Chokwe peoples
Late 19th/20th century
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General Description

Chokwe musical instruments include drums, whistles, and thumb pianos (mbira or sanza). They are important and desirable objects that have visual as well as aural appeal. This instrument is called a thumb piano, or finger piano, because the metal keys are played with the thumbs or one or both forefingers. It has a flat, rectangular soundboard with a raised bar extended by a thin iron band to create a bridge on which the metal keys, which can number up to fourteen, are laid. The keys are anchored with copper wire wound around a faceted piece of metal laid across the key and threaded through holes in the soundboard. Several small cylinders strung on metal wire are attached to the end of the soundboard, and serve as vibrators. The opening on the soundboard, called a sound-hole, may have been covered with a thin material to produce a particular sound effect. The instrument was probably mounted on a gourd resonator. The raffia cord looped through two holes at the top of the soundboard allows a musician to carry his mbira or hang it on a wall or other support. The unknown sculptor of this mbira decorated the soundboard of this thumb piano with precisely cut geometric patterns of concentric rectangles and lozenges, which may represent stylized cowries.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.
  • Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2009.

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