The mbira maker builds each mbira in a chosen tuning.
While the tuning of mbira is always heptatonic (based on a seven-tone scale), actual tuning configurations vary enormously. While each instrument has a range of just over three octaves, the tuning of the mbira is not fixed across time and space, and so the relationship between the intervals in any sequence of keys is variable.
Mbiras can vary not only
in the relative tuning of the notes (their interval, or pitch distance
from each other), but also in their absolute pitch (the actual frequency
of the notes). Mbira players often speak of "chuning" to
describe how high or low the instrument sounds, and its timbre, as well as
the tuning of the scale.
Several authors have attempted to represent some common mbira tunings in terms of Western scales or modes. How accurate and how helpful this is perhaps a matter of personal preference. For those who find this useful here are some descriptions along with mbira samples for each tuning:
Perhaps the most common tuning, Nyamaropa tuning has been described as a major scale with the seventh scale degree flatted (lowered one half-step), the Western equivalent being Mixolydian mode.
Mavembe or gandanga mbiras are a natural minor scale with lowered second degree. the Western equivalent being Phrygian mode. (Mavembe literally means "people with speech defects" but is understood to mean "the tuning so beautiful it leaves you speechless".)
N. Scott Robinson points out, however, that "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 (Thomas Wadharwa) and his tuning sounded more Lydian to Western ears." Erica Azim reports Tute Chigamba saying that he got gandanga tuning from Sekuru Gora and originally built mbiras in Sekuru Gora's tuning, but later tuned his "gandanga" mbiras to a less Western sound in their intervals.
A low-pitched gandanga/mavembe tuning.
Dambatsoko tuning (a tuning from the extended Mujuru family) is a major scale with a raised seventh degree or Western equivalent Ionian.
Katsanzaira (the sound of the first gentle rain before a storm) tuning is a very sweet high pitched Dorian mode tuning.
Instead of having three octaves, a Dongonda tuning mbira's right side keys are the same as the upper left keys.
Mbira maker Simboti Mukuwurirwa's wonderfully non-Western tuning.
Mbira tunings are, of course, not the same as
major or minor scales tuned in equal temperament, but some traditional
mbira tunings are quite close to the major scale. making it fairly easy
to include them with Western-style instruments in a world music band. Other
mbira tunings have intervals that are very different from Western scales.
The descriptions of the tunings above include names for these tunings, but it is a matter of contention whether these names have been used traditionally or have arisen in response to Westerners requesting labels to hang on to. As well, for every named tuning there seem to be numerous tunings unique to a particular mbira maker, mbira musician, mbira group or locality.
Mbiras in tunings such as Nyamaropa and Gandanga can be tuned along a wide range of pitches, from low to high. So two mbiras with the same interval relationships but at different pitches would be said to be "in the same tuning" and yet would normally not be played together. "Nyamaropa" tuning mbiras, for example, are made along a wide range of pitches–high to low. Here is Shumba played in three Nyamaropa tunings:
Although discussions of mbira tunings tend to focus on the configuration of intervals. Shona musicians also take into consideration qualities of tone, sound projection, pitch level. and overtones.
Different tunings use different pitch intervals. But even with mbiras of the "same tuning" mbira makers and players tune their mbiras with varying internal relationships among the intervals of an mbira, including tuning octaves not exactly an octave apart.
Mbira differ in the way in which their octaves are tuned and in the amount of variation among other corresponding intervals within the instrument’s registers. This is shown in a comparison of the mbira of Gondo and Mude. While most of the corresponding intervals on Gondo’s instrument are tuned within a quartertone of each other, the intervals on Mude’s mbira show greater deviation. At certain points (see figures indicated with arrows) they are tuned over a semitone apart. In addition, the octaves of the two instruments have a different character. In Gondo’s mbira the octaves are usually augmented, while on Mude’s mbira they are frequently diminished.Paul Berliner — The Soul of Mbira
Tuning of overtones is yet another variable in mbira making.
John Kunaka, for example, reported that the instruments he builds are different from those constructed by other local blacksmiths because he “gives two voices” to the lowest pitch (B1) on his instruments. To achieve this he forges keys which produce an overtone of approximately a fifth or a third, two octaves above the fundamental pitch. He regards these tuned overtones as “helping” the music during the performance of an mbira piece. His preference is for an overtone of a fifth, but he feels the third also helps the music. He distinguishes such tuned overtones from others which “do not help the music” and are therefore ignored by the performers.Paul Berliner — The Soul of Mbira
And then there are mbira dzavadzimu which do not follow the model of three manuals spanning three octaves. On a Dongonda tuning mbira the right side keys are tuned down an octave to match the upper keys on the left side. Only two octave but an entirely different mbira sound, with interlocking melodic lines in the same octave.
same song, different song
The existence of mbiras with different interval relationships allows mbira players to play "the same song" (using the same fingering pattern) in different tunings. While the same keys played in different tunings may create very different resulting sounds, these different sounding melodies are considered the "same song." Here is Mahororo played in several different mbira tunings:
Playing a song on differently-tuned instruments brings out different qualities and adds variety to the music.
And some mbira groups—including Mbira Dzenharira, Matemai Mbira Group and Garikayi Tirikoti's group—are experimenting with combining differently tuned mbiras.
... in metal not stone
There is no bureau of standards for mbira tunings. Mbira makers
and players are continually experimenting with tunings, making small changes
to an existing tuning or trying a new tuning. Even the tunings we assign
names to are not written in stone. As noted above Sekuru Gora's gandanga
tuning has already morphed from Lydian to Phrygian mode. Tute Chigamba made
me a gandanga mbira in 1998. In 1999 when I returned to Zimbabwe he informed
me they had retuned their "gandanga"
to be almost a whole step lower. Forward Kwenda is said to have created Nemakonde
tuning by taking a Dambatsoko mbira and tuning the right side keys to gandanga