The mbira is an idiophone musical instrument from sub-Saharan Africa; more precisely it is a lamellophone, like the xylophone, composed of a wooden support on which are fixed metal strips of various shapes and sizes. It has many names depending on the region and ethnic group, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo1: likembe, mbila, mbira huru, mbira njari, mbira nyunga nyunga, nhare, matepeand njari, sansu, zanzu, karimbao, marimba, karimba, kalimba, okeme, ubo, sanza, gyilgo. European settlers called it thumb piano or finger piano. It is close to the Caribbean marimbula.
Usually small in size and transportable, it is played by holding it in the hands, thumbs up vibrating the slats of different lengths and in variable numbers (from five to more than twenty), according to various ranges. The body is often hollow, acting as a sounding board.
The low sound volume of the instrument makes it more suitable for intimate events, to accompany singing.
Easy to transport and use, inexpensive, the instrument has gone beyond the sphere of traditional African music to be manufactured industrially (especially in China) for a Western audience who perceives its sweet sounds as conducive to awakening sound and music for young children 2.
Maurice White, singer and leader of the funk group Earth, Wind and Fire popularized this instrument in the 70s, especially in 1973 on the title “Evil”, from the album Head to the sky. Phil Collins, on his album No Jacket Required, released in May 1985, plays this instrument on the song Long Long Way to Go with Sting doing the backing vocals. Steve Hackett, guitarist of the group Genesis, also uses this instrument on the album Wind and Wuthering.