Today’s interactive Doodle celebrates Zimbabwe’s national instrument, the mbira, as Zimbabwe’s Culture Week begins. Try your own hand at this instrument that has been played for over 1,000 years, while experiencing a story as told through the lens of a Zimbabwean girl who learns to play the mbira.
Originating in Southern Africa, the mbira has long played an integral role in the traditions and cultural identity of Zimbabwe’s Shona people. It consists of a handheld hardwood soundboard (gwariva) affixed with a series of thin metal keys, which are plucked by the thumbs and forefinger. A large hollow gourd (deze) provides amplification, and materials such as bottle caps or beads can be affixed to the soundboard to create the instrument’s signature buzzing sound.
The music played on the instrument, which is also called mbira, often consists of two or more interlocking and cyclical parts marked by polyrhythmic complexity. Songs lend themselves to improvisation, so no two performances are exactly alike.
The instrument features prominently in a variety of Shona ceremonies, and it remains a vital link to the past through songs that have been passed down over hundreds of years. While the mbira was traditionally played by men, Zimbabwean women have increasingly taken up the instrument in recent years and continue to push its timeless sound in new and contemporary directions.