Introduction to the African Thumb Piano

Facts About Mbira, Sanza, Likembe & Co.

It's time to learn about the African thumb piano! Just like the xylophone, it is deeply rooted in the continent's culture.

Besides, it's music is too cute to be ignored! (Click the player on the right to hear samples)

Actually, the general term "thumb piano" isn't correct, because Africans often play them with more fingers than just the thumbs.

Another mistake we often make in the West, is thinking that its African name is "mbira". In fact, the mbira is only one of many types of thumb pianos. It only happens to be more known than others outside Africa.


It is said that before globalisation, these instruments could only be found in Africa and where African descendants lived. Therefore, the thumb piano we know in the West, called kalimba, is a modernized version of its African ancestors.

Many tribes, all across the continent, have developed their own unique thumb pianos over the centuries. Because the languages and cultures of these tribes vary so much, so do the names and traditions of their instruments.

Some examples of names are:

  • the mbira of the Shona people in Zimbabwe
  • the likembe and sanza in Congo
  • the ikembe in Rwanda and Burundi
  • the prempremsuah and gyilgo in Ghana
  • the ilimba and chirimba in Tanzania
  • the kadongo and akogo in Uganda
  • the kalimba in Kenya
  • and many more

Materials and construction

Thumb pianos are percussion instruments. Just like xylophones, they belong to the family of lamellophones.

The looks of African thumb pianos can vary a lot from one tribe to another, but the basic construction is always the same: Keys of different length and shape are clamped to some type of resonator.

The keys are often made of iron. But it's not unusual that a maker uses bicycle spikes, bed springs, or any other piece of metal he can recycle, or bamboo and other types of wood. The number of keys and their arrangement vary a lot from one tribe to another.

The resonator can be a wooden box, a hollow gourd or just a hardwood board that is placed inside a large calabash.

Use and purpose

Like it is the case with most African instruments, the traditional purpose of the thumb piano isn't entertainment. It often has religious functions. Its sound may attract spirits and ancestors, seeking their advice. It may be played to honor certain people or to accompany weddings and funerals.

In recent decades, talented thumb piano players developed popular music genres based on the traditional music of their tribes. Thanks to that, the African thumb piano still fascinates the youth, even though it is centuries-old.

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