It's time to learn about the African thumb piano! Just like the
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
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,
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
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.
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.