personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter


Posted by r on December 11, 2011

(edit cleanup 3.19.13: This post is mostly about mbiras– which we dumb Westerners might otherwise know as a “thumb piano”– and other related lamellaphones, including some dumb-Westerner takes / “reboots” that make me upset. I have been slightly obsessed with mbiras for almost 20 years now, but I still don’t own a good one yet.)

Here’s a six-minute mini-documentary on a few Zimbabwean mbira players. Most of the music is in the first few minutes. It’s utterly beautiful, like so much mbira music.

I am not an ethnomusicologist by any stretch, although I’m getting more and more interested in my old age in certain genres of traditional world music, having loved the stuff on many frequent past encounters. The mbira in all of its many forms has been particularly interesting to me since I was first exposed to it as a sophomore or so in college.

Somewhere along the line, a few years later, I managed to track down a real-deal mbira dzavadzimu. It wasn’t at all easy to do. Having only cost me $80, it’s not the greatest instrument and I’ve always wanted to find a much better one (of course).

All mbiras are fully handmade, and while they might only cost a few hundred bucks, to get an authentic one, you need to know someone who builds them the traditional way– probably in Africa. There’s still not a whole lot of online presence among Zimbabwean mbira master crasftmen.

Until recently, really, the only way to get a good mbira without traveling to Zimbabwe yourself was to drop a couple thousand bucks in camp costs / airfare and a week of your time to enroll in’s annually-held “Mbira Camp.” You had to prove just how serious you were about learning the instrument before they would help hook you up with an African craftsman (cost of instrument not included in cost of camp); they were really strict about that. (It seems they’ve had a change of heart over at, and will now sell you a starter dzavadzimu “for very small hands” and a DVD for $300, no questions asked.)

Naturally, while I can definitely respect the fact that the mbira in its original form is effectively a sacred instrument, I like the experimental possibilities offered much more. Accordingly, I don’t necessarily have to have a real-deal instrument. But most of the little kalimbas et al made in China and sold as curiosities in gift shops are dumb, diatonic toys for middle-minders (to use an old Curtis Whiteism). They’re not for actual music-making at all; more like, “hey, here’s a cool wooden box that will look great and cultured and everything on your Pier 1 coffee table, and it makes a pretty noise too if you ever get bored during the commercial breaks on MSNBC“.

There was some guy on the East Coast who used to make his own thumb pianos using things like found street-sweeper brush wires or the metal flat wire known as electrician’s fish tape, fitting them with piezo pickups. He used them to create what amounted to homebrew shoegaze-mbira music with lots of processing. It was also utterly beautiful music, albeit in a totally different vein from the music of the Shona. This was way back in the days of, and I have no idea whatever happened to him. I had a couple of good conversations with him over email, but I never got to see his instruments or how they were built.

So anyway, last night I was cruising Youtube after watching a great 80s documentary on the then-musical culture of Thailand (it’s called Two Faces of Thailand and it’s on Netflix streaming– watch it, it’s seriously fantastic stuff for anyone), and I somehow bumped into something called an Array Mbira. From the thumbnails, it looked like a Western-built instrument, and it had lots of tines, which turned me on greatly. I had to click.

What I got made my ears instantly curl over in horror.

This thing sounds about as much like a proper mbira as the Doogie Howser DX7-Rhodes patch sounds like a real Fender Rhodes– which is to say that anyone who has heard and loved the real thing will immediately become sick to their stomach hearing the imitation.

Part of the problem– no buzzing. Every real mbira you see has bottle caps or shells loosely affixed to it, meant to buzz as the instrument is played, like a kind of primitive distortion pedal. I used to find this a little annoying, but hearing something approximating an mbira without the never-ending buzz, I realize that the thing needs the bottle-cap grit.

The bigger problem is the forcibly-employed Western temperament. Lately I’ve been listening to so much music from India, southeast Asia, and the Middle East that I am becoming really disenchanted with equal temperament, the compromise note-tuning / -proportion system that has been the de facto standard for a century or two now in the West. Even in the face of its almost universal acceptance, there have long been loud critics of equal temperament; in the last few decades, they’ve mostly been nutty-composer iconoclasts, obnoxious musicologists who can’t stop living in the incredibly distant past, or bong-tofu-and-Birkenstocks-with-socks ethnomusicologist types. Yeah, I really never thought I’d become one of Those People.

And, mind, I will openly admit that I really have no serious idea how alternative systems of temperament work at this stage. I just know that the “rightful wrongness” of certain notes in the music of other cultures is one reason why I find it so compelling and addictive and downright sexy to listen to.

You listen to an mbira performance and, to your Western ears, notes seem to be sharp or flat all over the place– and it sounds fuggin’ fantastic. Build an instrument with the same basic principle and tune it properly to the Western octave, and it suddenly sounds like you grabbed the shittiest Korg wavetable synth on the 1991 showroom floor and pulled up patch #72, “Mating Call for White Moms.”

Looking at Array’s website, I have to appreciate what they’re doing here on some level; they have effectively created a new keyboard layout that is very structurally sound and interesting from a Western-theoretical perspective, with the layout of the most commonly-occurring relationships / intervals set up in compelling, easy-to-remember patterns. I’d love to try it in MIDI-controller form (although I’d really rather try the Samchillian first!).

But then you look at the prices for an Array mbira. A “solid body” three-octave model starts at $1300. Get one of their “hollow body acoustic” models in a 4-5 octave range, and it will set you back well over $2k. Looking at these instruments, even with the pointless exotic woods and finishes, they all have to cost maybe $150 at absolute most to construct, with incredibly minimal labor compared to, say, even a modern electric guitar. The tines are all cut from the same width of readily-available flat wire, unlike proper mbiras, where the tines are all hand-forged and -filed, and differ drastically in width at the fingertip. The Array “hollow bodies” are basically stock wooden boxes, like the $50 gift-store kalimbas on a somewhat larger scale.

Want to build one yourself, then? Go right ahead, Doogie Howser, but watch out before you post your fake-Array version of effin’ “Under The Sea” on Youtube— because of course they’ve patented the clever keyboard layout. (Imagine a world where the piano keyboard layout was patented!) And with those kinds of margins on their instruments, they very well could afford to sue you for giggles if they sell even two or three of ’em.

I hate to say it, but I hope this company fails. Long live real mbira, and down with all those who don’t know when Western bastardization of beautiful non-Western things has simply gone too far.

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