Shona culture




Somgs and song families

Taireva, Nhemamusasa, Nyamaropa… These are all pieces in the repertoire of the mbira that is said to consist of several hundred songs. But what makes an mbira song?

An mbira piece consists of a basic cyclical pattern which includes numerous intertwined melodies, often with contrasting rhythms. Since the extensive possibilities for rhythmic and melodic variation render each rendition unique, what makes Nhemamusasa Nhemamusasa?

An mbira piece itself is not a fixed musical structure with a specified beginning and end; it is a composition of certain characteristic cyclical patterns that provide a framework for elaboration and variation supporting the creative expression of the performer. Shona mbira music consists of a continuous stream of subtly changing musical ideas; its texture is like a fabric of tightly interwoven melodic/rhythmic lines that interact with each other throughout the performance of a piece. 

Can we describe or define a piece by a particular melody? The basic pattern of keys played? As the mbiras play through continuous cycles, they expand the collection of pitches. Each cycle brings a new configuration of the existing pattern, and in this way new patterns emerge.

Can we define a piece by its harmonic structure?

In The Soul of Mbira Paul Berliner suggests that:

Musicians associate or distinguish mbira pieces on the basis of numerous formal aspects: harmonic structure (discussed below), characteristic rhythmic and melodic patterns, the pitches which comprise them, tonal centers, the number and length of the basic phrases, amount of variation associated with each piece, and the relationship between the piece’s kushaura and kutsinhira parts.

He describes several formal features that mbira musicians use to describe mbira pieces.

  • Which keys are played. Some compositions are played with “different mbira keys” (that is, they utilize a different selection of the mbira’s pitches) while others use the “same keys, played differently.” This means that the same basic pitches may be used in a number of pieces, employed differently in each to produce that piece’s characteristic melodic and rhythmic patterns.
  • The tonal center. Some pieces have “high voice” overall and others a “low voice.”
  • The overall harmonic movement
  • The length of song’s cycle and phrases

None of these in themselves necessarily describe a “song.” Many songs use the same configuration of keys, yet rhythmic differences and playing patterns create different songs. Below we describe three songs that utilize the same mbira keys: Kariga Mombe, Nyamaropa and Mahororo.

Some songs share an overall harmonic movement but different harmonic rhythm. See The Soul of Mbira for Berliner’s comparison of the harmonic changes in Nyamaropa and Mahororo. The rhythmic relationship among the melodic lines also differs between pieces.

Some songs share basic elements of harmonic and thematic structure while having different tonal centers. Nhemamusasa and Nyamaropa, for example, follow the same overall harmonic progression and have similar thematic development while having different tonal centers.

Nhemamusasa and Nyamaropa

Some songs have the same tonal center and share harmonic patterns but differ in their structure. Kuzanga, for example, shares Nhemamusas’s tonal center and some of its harmonic progression. But Kuzanga’s phrases are 9 beats each not 12. While two of its four phrases follow a harmonic progression similar to Nhemamusasa, two do not.

Nhemamusasa and Kuzanga

song names

Given all the formal factors that can make an mbira piece unique, and given that a traditional song’s composition is passed down orally and aurally, it is not surprising that mbira players don’t always agree on the name of a piece of mbira music. The source of the titles of some mbira songs may be lost to history. When there is agreement on a song’s title there may be great variety in the meanings attached to the titles, and it is not at all unreasonable to think that song title that hundreds of years ago were associated with war might become adapted to a more peaceful hunting culture.

  • Nyamaropa, which literally means “meat and blood,” has been described … as referring to the period after a hunt when meat is all around, as “a war song to arouse feelings before the battle, as the scene of a battlefield after fighting when blood and flesh is everywhere,” and as having “to do with the blood of a beast when it is sacrificed for the [ancestral spirits] ” More recently it has been spoken of as hunting song.
  • Kuzanga has been reported to mean “living happily free from fear” by some. Chartwell Dutiro explains that the title means “to thread beads,” and states it is a “song about an old woman who stays in the forest alone, making beads for her ancestors. For the old woman, making beads for the ancestors is living happily and free from fear.”
  • Mahororo is said to be derived from a river of that name, and it is also said that the word means “baboons’ voices.” Stella Chiweshe’s description of Mahororo as a song used to welcome hunters home after long hunts seems a more recent interpretation than Forward Kwenda’s “freedom following victorious struggle.”
  • Nhemamusasa is generally translated as “cutting branches for a temporary shelter.” Paul Berliner’s teachers described Nhemamusasa as a song for war in which soldiers make shelters for the night, while others describe it as a hunting song in which hunters make temporary shelters as protection from the wild animals in the bush.

Paul Berliner points out that many differences in the names attached to songs represents the ongoing evolution of songs within a family of songs (see below). (Some songs are known by variations on a name, and often these differences reflect regional linguistic differences. So Taireva may be called Taisireva and Bukatiende may be called Mukatiende.)

song families

Quite a few mbira songs share significant enough characteristics to be spoken of as “in the same family.” It is assumed that many of these songs evolved from one early parent song as musicians came up with significant enough variations to start giving their variations a new name.

Perhaps the most commonly described family is the Nyamaropa family. Songs in this family such as Kariga Mombe, Mahororo, Chipembere and Mandarindari follow the same over-all harmonic progression and use the same collection of pitches. (Calling it the Nyamaropa family assumes is that these pieces are historically derived from a version of Nyamaropa–although not necessarily the Nyamaropa played today, which may be as much a variation as the other songs.)

Nyamaropa, Mahororo and Kariga Mombe

Although they are known and played as separate songs, quite a few mbira players play versions of Nyamaropa and Mahororo (and perhaps Kariga Mombe) together. In fact when playing the kushaura to Mahororo with the kushaura to Nyamaropa, the Mahororo part fits nicely behind the Nyamaropa and in this situation becomes a kutsinhira. (Many mbira players enjoy this combination, although I have heard older mbira players frown on this.)

different tuning, same piece

An mbira piece is normally defined by which keys on the mbira are played, not by the absolute tones that sound. (This makes transcribing mbira music to staff notation virtually impossible, although it does not stop people from trying.) Many mbira pieces can be played in multiple tunings. The mbira player plays the same keys in the same patterns; what sounds from the mbira can be strikingly different from tuning to tuning.

Here is Mahororo (kushaura) played in a variety of tunings:

Mahororo played in a variety of tunings

As mentioned above, certain mbira songs follow the same overall harmonic progression and have similar thematic development while having different tonal centers. And so it happens that one mbira song when it’s keys are played in a different tuning sounds like a different song.

new songs, new versions

Because of the role that mbira songs play in spirit possession ceremonies, a value is placed on songs that have been played in the past, as these are the songs ancestral spirits want to hear. This essential role of the mbira song assures that songs pass from generation to generation.

Although people often speak of a song as being one played hundreds of years ago, it is impossible to know precisely what was played given that mbira songs are passed down aurally and orally. What we do know from observing mbira over the past, say, half century, is that it is common for mbira musicians to create new variations of traditional pieces. Often these variations are played along with more traditional variations. But sometimes a new version of a song, although derived from a traditional song, becomes so different that is no longer played with the song it evolved from.

Tute Chigamba has composed several songs that can be identified as variations but have evolved into separate songs.

Tute Chigamba’s compositions Ngozi Yemurura, Pasi Mupindu and Dandemutande

Some examples from the current repertoire of mbira suggest how difficult it is to accurately speak of the songs of the distant past.

  • Nhemamusasa Yekutanga (the older Nhemamusasa) shares the same tonal center and basic harmonic structure as the song now known as Nhemamusasa. It can be played along with the current Nhemamusasa or played on its own.

    Nhemamusasa Yekutanga
  • Nhemamusasa Yepasi is spoken of as the original Nhemamusasa. Although it shares some of Nhemamusasa’s harmonic structure, it is distinct enough not to work with “the new Nhemamusasa.”

    Nhemamusasa Yepasi
  • Nyamaropa Yepasi has diverged enough from Nyamaropa that it no longer shares the same tonal center and harmonic structure as “Nyamaropa” and can not be played together with Nyamaropa.

    Nyamaropa Yepasi

The existence of “new”and “old” songs that share the same name raises interesting (and unanswerable) questions. If there is an “old Nhemamusasa” that is no longer the song mbira players think of when they think “Nhemamusasa”, was there a time in the past when that Nhemamusasa was thought of as “the new Nhemamusasa?” Was there then yet another Nhemamusasa that was at that time considered “the old Nhemamusasa?”

Paul Berliner writes that John Kunaka reported that one source of new pieces were dreams in which he was assisted by ancestral spirits. The “new” pieces a person learns in dreams, he stated, are actually the ancient pieces of the spirits who are teaching him. Could the new pieces be old pieces the spirits want to hear again?


The polyphony and polyrhythms resulting from interlocking parts really come alive when two mbiras are played together. The different paths the two mbiras take—referred to as kushaura (“to lead” or “to start”) and kutsinhira (“to intertwine with”)—are in an interlocking relationship with one another, one player sounding in the silence of the other, thus forming figures of intricacy and variety exceeding the movements of the fingers alone.

The kushaura and kutsinhira are usually referred to as “parts” (“You play the kushaura part…”) but it is more useful to think of them as roles, as expressed in verbs such as “to lead the piece, to take the solo part” and “to exchange parts”. Speaking of them as parts is useful — we can generalize that the kushaura usually contains the melodic core of a piece and does not emphasize the mbira’s bass notes, while the kutsinhira often contributes rhythmic contrast and does emphasize bass lines. And it is also true that most mbira pieces have variations that are commonly played as kushaura and others that interlock when played a step behind.

But the primary importance of the two roles is to create mbira’s signature interlocking of the two parts, with the two mbiras maintaining different rhythmic positions. Cosmas Magaya has emphasized that first and foremost one mbira’s right hand notes are always one pulse behind the other’s, maintaining the “hocketing” or interlocking effect when playing high-tone melodies. (The common generalization that the kushaura’s right hand that is ahead of the kutsinhira’s has significant exceptions in songs such as Nhema musasa, Mahororo, Nhema musasa yepasi, and some versions of Bangidza.)

Luken Pasampire and Chris Mhlanga  dandemutande

Most mbira pieces do have variations identified by mbira players as kushaura and kutsinhira parts. Here is one kushaura for Nyamaropa:

And here is one kutsinhira for Nyamaropa

Here are the kushaura and kutsinhira for Nyamaropa being played together.

Mbira songs have numerous kushaura and kutsinhira parts. Although you can theoretically play any kushaura variation for a piece with any kutsinhira variation, in practice experience and listening lead one to match particular kushaura and kutsinhira parts.

… and a part that can be either

Several mbira pieces have a kushaura part and a high kutsinhira part (called in Shona kwepamusoro) that can be played behind the kushaura. This high part can, however, also be played as kushaura, with other kutsinhira parts taking the kutsinhira role. Two “big” songs in the mbira repertory have this high part that can be played as kushaura or kutsinhira—Taireva and Mukatiende.

Here are three parts to Taireva:

Taireva— kushaura
Taireva — high kutsinhira kwepamusoro
Taireva — kutsinhira

You may hear these songs played with the traditional kushaura parts, parts that very much uniquely identify these songs. But you may also hear them without these signature kushaura parts but rather with the high kutsinhira as kushaura. Here is Taireva with and without its signature kushaura:


same — but different place

Not all mbira pieces have separate kushaura and kutsinhira parts. When playing songs such as Kuzanga, Nyamamusango and Shumba the kutsinhira player plays (basically) the same part as the kushaura but one step behind. Here is Nyamamusango, first with just one player and then with a second playing the same part interlocking one step behind.


play it as kutsinhira

Because kushaura and kutsinhira are roles or places in the rhythmic pattern, one can theoretically play any two parts together, as long as the two parts interlock properly and follow the same harmonic progression. So one could, for example, play two kushaura variations of an mbira piece together, with one “behind” the other. Of course it takes a lot of experience with the music to know when this effect results in good mbira music.


Aspects of mbira


Mbira songs are cyclical. The cyclical pattern for the most common type of mbira song is 48 pulses or beats in length.


Nhemamusasa — kushaura — one cycle

The basic 48-pulse patterns are often described as being made up of four phrases of equal length. This can be a useful mechanism for analyzing the rhythmic and melodic patterns of an mbira piece.

Here’s the same cycle with pauses between the phrases:

Nhemamusasa – kushaura – four phrases

The trouble with this method is that it assumes a starting place for each phrase, when in reality mbira pieces are truly cyclical — they go round and round without any fixed starting (or ending) point.

There are (at least) two common places for starting Nhemamusasa.

To describe this you could say that in the second way of playing you are starting on the last note of the first way’s phrase. Here’s four phrases but starting one note earlier:

Nhemamusasa – kushaura – four phrases

Two common places to start Kariga Mombe are:

Whether Shona mbira players think (or have traditionally thought) of the pieces they play as being in four phrases seems to be an open question. Some have said that they do not and emphasize that the cycle can begin on any of the 48 pulses of a song. Others are said to use the four phrases as a teaching mechanism, including John Kunaka, who is quoted in The Soul of Mbira as referring to a piece’s four sections. Those who teach pieces in four phrases often emphasize starting the piece at different phrases, rather than thinking of any phrase as “the first phrase.” But this does not address the fact that a piece can be started at any place within these phrases.

The 12 beats of each phrase can be divided into three groups of four, or four groups of three. In this way mbira music is especially noteworthy, as it merges 4/4 and 3/4 time. Often, the music is not clearly one time signature or the other, but rather a wonderfully ambiguous combination of the two. As 12 can be evenly divided by either three or four, one can group the 12 beats into “four measures of three beats each” or “three measures of four beats each”. Mbira music takes advantage of this by creating polyrhythms, in which the duple and triple meters can be heard at the same time.

Within the 48-pulse patterns, Shona mbira songs elaborate a seemingly endless number of intertwined melodic variations around a basic harmonic shape, shifting rhythms and melodies at ever-changing places in the cycle. These cyclical patterns provide a framework for elaboration and variation.

interlocking patterns and inherent rhythms

As an mbira musician plays the cyclical patterns, complex polyrhythmic and melodic patterns emerge. These interlocking patterns are inherent – and it takes some deep listening (or, ideally, playing) to begin to hear the the complexity of the relationship among the interwoven melodic lines and their resultant lines.

Heard as well are the inherent rhythms.

Musicians themselves observe that a single mbira can produce the effect of two or more instruments being played simultaneously. One explanation for the apparent complexity of the music lies in a phenomenon known as “inherent rhythms.” Inherent rhythms are those melodic rhythmic patterns not directly being played by the performer but arising from the total complex of the mbira music. They are the product of the psycho-acoustic fact that the ear does not perceive a series of tones as isolated pitches, but as a gestalt. For example, in mbira music in which the hands typically play large melodic leaps, the ear does not necessarily follow the precise linear melodic patterns being played; it picks out pitches of a similar level and groups them in separate independent phrases

Shona culture

African “mbiras”

The Shona mbira dzavadzimu belongs to a family of instruments referred to by ethnomusicologists as lamellophones – instruments with plucked keys (or lamellae) attached to a soundboard (and often with a resonator).

Lamellophones are found throughout Africa, with different cultures using different names. Some examples include:


In the 1960s and 1970s sanza was the generic term used to describe African members of the lamellophones family. Today the term mbira is commonly used to describe instruments of this family. But as Banning Eyre points out:

…it is important to differentiate these instruments. The Shona mbira dzavadzimu in particular has both musical and ceremonial aspects that are quite unique. To confuse all African lamellophones under the generic term mbira, as many do, is similar to lumping together banjos, lutes, mandolins, and all varieties of guitar under a single heading. A lot gets lost in the mix. 

By the way, you may very well have heard these instruments inappropriately referred to as ”thumb pianos”. Leave it to Westerners to need to apply their own terminology to another culture, describing an African instrument by referring to a European one! As you can see, these instruments are in no way “pianos.” (Nor are they played exclusively with the thumbs.)

Likembe ensemble


Likembe, Mbuti of the Congo


mbira dza ndau
mbira dza vadzimu

While the mbira we are presenting here is often referred to as mbira dzavadzimu — “the mbira of the ancestral spirits”— in Zimbabwe this instrument is usually referred to as “mbira” – as distinct from the nyunga nyunga, njari, matepe, etc. (Some traditional musicians object to this name mbira dzavadzimu because they say that all mbiras belong to the spirits.) The term mbira huru –”big” or “great” mbira –is also used.

Karimba (Nyunga Nyunga) (Kwanongoma mbira)


The Kwanongoma mbira was introduced to Zimbabwe from Tete province of Mozambique in the 1960s by Jeke Tapera, who brought it to Kwanongoma College of African music in Bulawayo. Similar in construction to the Mbira Dzavadzimu, the Nyunga Nyunga but has fewer keys, in two rows, and no hole in the soundboard. Key pitches radiate out from the center, rather than left to right. It is typically played by holding both sides of the instrument in one’s hands.

Dumisani Maraire brought awareness of this instrument, which he called Nyunga Nunga, to the United States when he came to the University of Washington as a visiting artist from 1968-1972. Ephat Mujuru, who performed widely in the West and East, brought further awareness to the instrument with his songs and storytelling.

“Nyunga Nyunga




Played primarily by the Kore-Kore people of northeastern Zimbabwe, the Matepe is similar to the Mbira Dzavadzimu in construction, The mat

The sound of mbira

the sound of mbira

Describing a musical instrument by its physical characteristics hardly communicates its special qualities, any more than trying to communicate the taste of an orange by describing its shape and color. The mbira is more a medium than a piece of hardware.

How does one speak of the sound on an mbira, or any instrument? On the following pages we explore mbira music and mbira songs. Here are some attempts at expressing the sound of the mbira, along with some examples of mbira music.

Stroking the mbira’s metal keys produces a range of sounds. Along with the vibrations of the bottle caps, the keys of the mbira tend to produce very prominent overtones resulting in various layers of rhythmic accents and inherent melodies. Mbira players often report that the mbira sounds like more than one instrument being played at once.

The mbira’s sound has a special presence; one feels the music as much as one hears it. Its sound is penetrating and warm at the same time, immediately capturing the involvement of the listeners and drawing them into its mood. When the keys of the mbira are struck, they ring on in the gourd resonator with rich and sonorous tones “like bells,” as one musician has suggested, or like flutes, as a line of classic poetry accompanying mbira music implies. There is, in fact, no satisfactory analogy for conveying its quality to one who has not heard mbira music performed. 

What’s going on here?

Mbira tunes are often made up of short melodic motifs that cycle indefinitely through simple harmonies. Played with three fingers! Yet the music that we hear is anything but simple.

Paul Berliner has written about this nicely:

As (an mbira player) plays interlocked polyrhythmic parts, the complexity of the mbira’s music often gives the impression of more than one instrument being performed. Musicians explain this phenomenon in part by the fact that when they strike a sequence of keys, the keys’ pitches are sustained in the gourd resonator, overlapping and intermixing. As several patterns are repeated in a cycle their beginnings and endings become ambiguous; new phrases appear in the music as one listens to the inner parts of the piece.”

…musicians themselves observe that a single mbira can produce the effect of two or more instruments being played simultaneously. One explanation for the apparent complexity of the music lies in a phenomenon known as “inherent rhythms.” Inherent rhythms are those melodic rhythmic patterns not directly being played by the performer but arising from the total complex of the mbira music. They are the product of the psycho-acoustic fact that the ear does not perceive a series of tones as isolated pitches, but as a gestalt. For example, in mbira music in which the hands typically play large melodic leaps, the ear does not necessarily follow the precise linear melodic patterns being played; it picks out pitches of a similar level and groups them in separate independent phrases. Compositions of the Baroque period in which there is a contrapuntal dialogue between the upper and lower voices, such as the Bach unaccompanied violin and cello suites, create this effect in Western music.

As a result of all this the performer is confronted with a basic fact: the music reflected back to him by his resonator as he plays seems to be more complex than that which his fingers alone produce. It is, then, real musical feedback that the musician receives from his instrument. It may well be that this feedback is responsible for some musicians’ personification of the mbira and its role in the music-making process

The sound of mbira (plural)

While Shona mbira pieces can be viewed in terms of their harmonic aspects, their most characteristic feature is the complexity of the relationship among the interwoven melodic lines. And central to this interweaving is the two (or more) interlocking parts played by two (or more) mbiras in the same tuning. With each part being polyphonic in its own right. the interaction of the multiple parts creates an astonishingly multilayered sound.