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Mbira Tunings from Zimbabwe

These tuning diagrams are not meant to be taken as examples of exact tunings of traditional African instruments. Rather, the pitch names on the lamellae are meant to be a help to Western musicians wishing to understand intervallic relationships between traditional tunings in Zimbabwe and Western music theory. Western pitch names used here are not absolute and are for convenience only. Basically, in many of the traditional Shona tunings for mbira dza vadzimu and karimba the traditional intervals are often slightly stretched or lowered when compared to Western ideas of being "in tune." This is how these instruments are supposed to be tuned and sound. However, if one were to play Shona music on a traditionally tuned mbira dza vadzimu or karimba and then on instruments that had the lamellae adjusted to Western A=440, the resultant musical performances would be recognizable as being generally the same. Traditionally, African musicians prefer their tuning while Western musicians wishing to perform with lamellaphones in Western contexts sometimes adjust the tuning to A=440.

Some feel that traditional instruments such as the matepe feature a non-Western tuning in which the intervallic relationships do not correspond to Western music theory. If one were to "tune" the lamellae and play traditional music on such an instrument, the resultant performance would not be recognizable at all as the traditional music. However, at least one researcher has given a matepe with lamellae adjusted to Western A=440 to one of the top matepe players (who made the adjusted instrument) who found the tuning to be fine and that traditional material when played upon this instrument to be recognizable. The matepe tuning chart below is for an unadjusted instrument made by Chaka Chawasarira.

The terms Low, Medium, and High (also known as Kanyuchi) have to do with range as to where a particular tuning is pitched. The common pitch ranges for mbira found today include the following: Mbira dza vadzimu - Low: E & F (E most common); Medium: G, Ab, A, Bb & B (A most common); High: C, D & E (C most common). Karimba - High E, F, and A. Matepe / Hera - Low F or F#.

Other mbira tuning analyses from Zimbabwe and Mozambique needed include mbira dza vadzimu in Mande tuning and tuning for the instruments known as munyonga (47, 52 & 56 lamellae), and ChiSanza (from Mozambique, 22 lamellae). Other African lamellaphone tunings soon to be posted include kondi from Sierra Leone, sanza from Cameroon, and sanza from Central African Republic.

These charts are offered here for those who may have ordered mbira through the mail and upon delivery have found that the tuning has been lost (or unplayable) due to transit. Upon following the diagrams below, you will be able to restore your instrument to the point of being able to play traditional sounding repertoire but will have lost the instrument's exact traditional regional tuning characteristics.

 

Karimba

Karimba (15 lamellae, High F): A smaller version of this instrument with a similar 15-lamellae layout is known as ndimba (on left above). Common tunings are high A, F, E, and C but some instruments are made an octave lower (in low A) as a bass karimba (see bottom photo on left, made by Chaka Chawasarira). Some instruments come in Low A tunings as well. Another version of this instrument was made at the Kwanongoma College of Music with a circular wooden resonator attached and is commonly known as nyunga nyunga (usually tuned in High F, on bottom right).

 

Karimba (17 lamellae, High A): This instrument follows the tuning pattern of a 15-lamellae instrument (in this case starting a little higher on “A”) but includes 2 extra lamellae on the upper and lower right side. African Musical Instruments (Hugh Tracey model) makes a version of this type. Some Shona ndimba have 17-lamellae but it remains unclear as to whether the Hugh Tracey model was based on a traditional 17-lamellae ndimba or not.

Karimba (19 lamellae, High D): This instrument was developed by Chaka Chawasarira and differs from the tuning pattern of a 15-lamellae instrument by including 4 extra lamellae on the upper and lower left and right sides. Sam Bvure also makes these instruments now.



Mbira Dza Vadzimu

Mbira dza vadzimu in Nyamaropa (Western equivalent - Mixolydian, Medium G): Can have 22–27 lamellae. 22-lamellae instruments (on left) do not have the left upper level 7th lamella. A 24-lamellae instrument (on right) will have the left upper level 7th lamella while extra lamellae beyond 23 simply continue on up the mode on the right side. The diagram above is for a 24-lamellae mbira dza vadzimu. Nyamaropa is the most common tuning. Some use the term “Nhemamusasa” for mbira with a Nyamaropa tuning. Arrows in these diagrams show octave relationships.

 

Mbira in Gandanga or Mavembe (Western equivalent - Phrygian, Medium Bb): Can have 22-27 lamellae with extra lamellae beyond 22 simply continuing on up the right side but Gandanga tuning sometimes also features an extra bass lamella. The extra bass lamella may be present or it may not. If it is present, it can be either on the right or left side of what is the lowest lamella (in this diagram it is sketched in on the right side of the lowest lamella but in the photo of a 25-lamellae instrument the extra bass lamella is the 2nd on left on the bottom row). While Gandanga tuned instruments can be High, Medium, or Low tuned, typically they are Medium tuned. Furthermore, a tuning by Forward Kwenda (coming to him in a dream) is said to be Nemakonde (Low) when the lamellae of a Dambatsoko tuned mbira dza vadzimu are altered so that those on the left side remain in Dambatsoko and while those the right side are tuned in Gandanga. During a ceremony, spirits told him to call this tuning “Nemakonde.” However, analyses of recordings said to be in Nemakonde tuning reveal a Low Gandanga tuning. Nemakonde tuning is only played by Forward Kwenda. Lastly, it is really only recordings from relatively recent times in gandanga tuning that sound to Western ears as phrygian. The inventor of gandanga tuning is said to be Sekuru Gora and his tuning sounded more lydian to Western ears.

Mbira in Dongonda also known as Nyamaropa Dongonda or Njari Makonde (Western equivalent - Mixolydian, Low F): Mbira in Dongonda tuning feature the typically higher lamellae of the right side of the instrument tuned down an octave to be in unison with the upper lamellae on the left side. The first key on the right side can be tuned to either the flat 7th or the typical 3rd as is found on regular Nyamaropa mbira. The photo is of a 23 lamellae instrument.

 

Mbira in Dambatsoko also known as Mahororo (Western equivalent - Ionian, Low E): Can have 22–27 lamellae. 22-lamellae instruments do not have the left upper level 7th lamella. A 23-lamellae instrument will have the left upper level 7th lamella while extra lamellae beyond 23 simply continue on up the mode on the right side. This tuning was developed by the Mujuru clan for their ancestors. Most often the Mujuru Dambatsoko tuning is simply Nyamaropa tuning but when it is different, the difference is typically a raised or “major” 7th in place of the lowered 7th. Apparently, only instruments made by a Mujuru clan member can be truly called in “Dambatsoko” tuning. Furthermore, such instruments can be tuned in a variety of ways by the Mujuru clan and, despite the variety, all may be referred to as “Dambatsoko.” Dambatsoko mbira are often Low tuned.

 

Mbira in Gandanga Dongonda (Western equivalent - Phrygian, Medium Bb): Mbira in Dongonda tuning feature the typically higher lamellae of the right side of the instrument tuned down an octave to match the upper lamellae range on the left side. This tuning sometimes also features an extra bass lamella. The extra bass lamella may be present or it may not. If it is present, it can be either on the right or left side of what is the lowest lamella (in this diagram it is sketched in on the right side of the lowest lamella). In Gandanga dongonda tuning, the first key of the right side can be tuned to either the flat 7th or the typical flat 3rd of a regular Gandanga tuned mbira. The difference between a Gandanga tuned mbira and a Gandanga Dongonda tuned mbira is that the right side lamellae of a Gandanga Dongonda mbira are tuned an octave lower than are found on a Gandanga mbira.

 

Mbira in Katsanzaira (Western equivalent - Dorian, High C): Mbira tuned in Katsanzaira retain the same lamellae relationships as mbira in Nyamaropa with the exception that the 3rd is lowered to go with the lowered 7th in making the Western equivalent of a Dorian mode. A tuning in a Low Dorian is said to be in Samsengere or Nyuchi Samsengere. The term Mazingizi (Low Dorian) is sometimes used for a tuning one octave lower than Katsanzaira (High Dorian).

 

 

Diagram for Saungweme - coming soon

Mbira in Saungweme (Western equivalent - roughly whole tone scale, Medium A): Tuning of Rinos "Simboti" Mukuwurirwa. A non-Western tuning that is close to a whole tone scale (but some instrumenta have been found close to a Lydian as well as Aeolian as far as the intervallic relationships are concerned).

 

 

 

Mbira in Manjengwa (Western equivalent - roughly Lydian, in A above) = Tuning for some mbira made by Fradreck Manjengwa - features a raised 4th and a natural 7th.



Matepe (or Hera)

Matepe in non-Western tuning: The tuning for matepe (also known as hera) instruments differ between players and are non-Western. The diagram offered above is only meant to show what a Western musician might call "intervallic relationships" but the relationships between the lamellae and pitch names differ widely from strict Western intonation (A=440). Lamellae above with a "U" indicate an upper manual. One of the reasons for such differences in "pitch" is that Western tunings typically center on adjusting the fundamental of a pitch while some African mbira tunings center on adjusting the overtones of a lamella and not the fundamental, such as in Chaka Chawasarira's 25-lamellae matepe in the above diagram. To demonstrate the individuality of this non-Western tuning, the note names are given below with the plus or minus cents reading for each lamella (along with its physical location on the instrument). This tuning is not to be taken as an example of a typical matepe tuning. Rather, this is an example of one individual matepe maker's tuning.

Lower left starting from center "F#" & ascending left: 8 lamellae

F# -5 cents
A -35 cents
B -12 cents
D +20 cents
E -5 cents
A +35 cents (octave higher, unison with right upper "A")
B +20 cents (octave higher, unison with right upper "B")
C +30 cents

 

Upper left starting from "G" & ascending left: 5 lamellae

G +35 cents
C +30 cents
G# -15 cents (next octave up)
F# +15 cents (octave higher than lowest lamella)
A +35 cents (unison with right upper "A")

 

Lower right starting from "C" and ascending right: 10 lamellae

C +15 cents
D +10 cents
E
F# -10 cents
G +15 cents
A -10 cents
B -10 cents
C +40 cents
D +20 cents
E +30 cents


Upper right starting on "A" and ascending right: 2 lamellae

A +35 cents (unison with lower left "A" +35 cents)
B +20 cents (unison with lower "B" + 20 cents)

 

Mbira dza VaNdau

Mbira dza VaNdau in hexatonic tuning, 34 lamellae. The tuning diagram above is based on an instrument made by Zivanai Khumbula from Tonhorai in Zimbabwe. These types of mbira vary from maker to maker so the diagram above is only for this particular instrument made by him. A feature of this mbira's layout is that the lowest lamella is on the left and they ascend to the right. The second and third manuals are 2nd and 3rd octaves (some are in the 4th octave). No mark after a pitch name = lowest octave, with one mark = one octave up from there, 2 marks = 2 octaves up, and 3 marks = 3 octaves up (the 4th octave). The (b)D = a flat D but not quite a Db. The pitch names here are just to give an idea of the octave layouts and are not meant to be 440. The basic hexatonic pitch inventory is Eb, F, G, B, C, D.

 

Njari

Njari tuning, 29 lamellae. The tuning diagram for this njari is based on an instrument made by Simon Mashoko. The pitch names here are just to give an idea of the octave layouts and are not meant to be 440. The upper manual pitches are in the octave above those in the lower manual.

 

Other Lamellaphones from Africa

Kadongo

Kadongo tuning from Uganda, played by Buganda People, 17 lamellae. These instruments are available in various sizes and the most standard tuning involves 10 lamellae (the outside 5 lamellae on each side). This model is actually referred to as a 14 lamellae version as the middle 3 lamellae are sympathetic and often not included when a lamellae count is given. All of the Abs, Cs, and Ebs on the shortest lamellae are in unison. The Abs, Bbs, and Fs are an octave apart (longer lamellae are lower octave). The pitch names here are just to give an idea of the octave layouts and are not meant to be 440. "Akadongo" is sometimes used for this instrument while the term "budongo" is plural.

 

Likembe

Likembe tuning from the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaïre) of Titos Sompa from Brazzaville, 14 lamellae.

 

Chirimba

Chirimba from Tanzania in non-Western pentatonic tuning: This is the tuning that Dr. Hukwe Ubi Zawose (of the Wagogo People of central Tanzania) used on his small 15-lamellae chirimba, which is pentatonic but features non-Western intervals. Note names and cents measurements are given below.

Start from lowest lamella in center with right thumb and alternate hands to ascend:

G +19 cents
A +26 cents
B +6 cents
D +17 cents
F -9 cents
G +19 cents (octave higher)
A +26 cents
B +6 cents
D +17 cents
F -9 cents
G +19 cents (next octave up)
A +26 cents
B +6 cents
D +17 cents
F -9 cents


Special thanks for help in compiling this information: B. Michael Williams, Erica Azim, Dan Pauli, Joel Laviolette, Chaka Chawasarira, Forward Kwenda, Claire Jones, Solomon Murungu, David Bellinger, Anthony Perman, Titos Sompa, and Nolan Warden.

©2004 - N. Scott Robinson. All rights reserved.

 

©1999-N. Scott Robinson/New World View Music-BMI. All rights reserved.

N. Scott Robinson - sonrob@msn.com / Pages designed by omradio.com