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African Instruments - Plucked Reeds

Unique to Africa and widely distributed, the Thumb Piano is found in over 100 different types and known by almost as many names: Chizanzi - Ekemba - Ilimba - Kalimba - Likembe - Malimba - Mbira - Nikemba. A 16th Century Portuguese priest compared the instrument to the harpsichord. These recordings, made by The late Dr Hugh Tracey in the early fifties, are fully documented and the various manuals1 resonators and key-tunings explained for each example. There are a total of twenty tracks of which 4 are pentatonic, 4 hexatonic & 10 heptatonic.

Pentatonic Instruments:

1. (Nyoro) KYENDA ALl MUGENYI (The careful father) - "Likembe" one-manual box-resonated played by Bachumirwa Tugwenderwa at Masindi, Uganda 1950.R132 (131). His instrumein was said to have been introduced into his district from the Nilotic Alur people - 1'33"

2. (Gogo) MAGANGA KALILA ZANSWELO (Maganga wishes you luck) - 1 'Ilimba" - 20 reeds I -manual box with mirliton by Ngaina Nob at Mvurti. Dodoma, Tanzania , 1950. TR- 154 (B6).Reeds made of steel taken from umbrella springs. Scale: 68,232, 202, 166, 150.134 vs. - 1'09"

3. (Luba) DYIBWE DYAMBULE KABANDE (The ant carries a load) - Duet with "Chisanzhi" (10 & 12 reeds, box with sound-hole) played by Kapungo Isidore & Boya Marcel at Kandakanda, Kasai, S. Zaire, 1952. - TR177 (B3). Octave apart. Scale:648, 548,424,392,324vs. 1'32"

4. (Alur) NDIRI - Duet with"Natine"(treble) and 'Minu" (bass), 10 reeds, box with mirliton and sound-hole played by Lokwa Albert na Jarimo at Bunia, N.E.Zaire, 1952.TR-124(A6). The 2 Likembe were tuned an octave apart. Scale: 536,472,424, 364, 312, 268, vs. - 1'34"

(Soga) KIRIYO (A woman is wonderful) - Ensemble of 6 "Budongo" (12 reeds each, box with sound-hole) played by Barwegira ni Baine at Bugembe, Jinja, Uganda, 1952. TR-141 (A3). The ensemble covers a range of four octaves from 1040 vs. down to 65 vs. - 2'16"

Hexatonic Instruments :

6. (Ndau) DETYETYE KUSHEKA (To laugh) - "Mbira dza vaNdau" (32 reeds, 3-manual, bell body resonator) played by Tabarirevu Muyambo at Chipinga, Rhodesia, 1963. TR-205 (134). Scale: 408, 388, 348, 300, 256, 224, 204vs. - 3'48"

7. (Ndau) HONDORO (Hondoro, soul) (As No.6). This tune has a clever polyrhythmic base in a phrase of 18 pulses, the one clapping rhythm sounding pulses numbered 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 18 while the other sounds the rest: l, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 16. "Woe alack - what has gone wrong? - Woe alack, Hondoro - Shawi soul - How do you, friend, diviner - beware policeman, you arrest your own father, your own mother, you bind your own mother?" - 1'25"

8. (Ndau) MEKI, YE MEKI WAYE (Meki has lost something) - "Mbira dza vaDau" (28 reeds, 3 manuals, bell body resonator) played by Simon Sitale from Marange, Chipinga, Rhodesia - 2'55"

9. (Ndau)"MWADZI ITIRA"(He did it himself) -"Mbira dza vaNdau" (27 reeds, 3 manuals, bell body resonator) played by Joseph Ngonyama Shumba from Gogoyo, Sipungabera, Mozambique, 1958 TR-81 (B2) - 1'41"

10. (Luba) KEMAI - Duet with 2 "Chisanzhi" (10 and 12 reeds, box with sound-hole) played by Kayoka Ladislas & Beya Marcel from Kandakanda, Kasai, S. Zaire,1952. TR-178(B3) For this the same two instruments (See item no.3) were re-tuned to a hexatonic mode, with one added note, thus: 656, 592, 488, 432,. 92, 380, 328vs. The treble "Chisanzhi tendo" is an octave higher than the bass "Chisanzhi chinene". These 2 examples demonstrate that Luba musicians are capable of tuning their instruments to more than one mode or scale - 1'33"

Heptatonic Instruments

11. (Lala) BATA WASUNGU MULUNDU - 'Kankowele" (11 reeds, 2 manuals, fan-shaped with external gourd resonator and mirliton) played by Edward Kalunga from Serenje, Zambia, 1957. TR-14 (A4). Tune composed by player in 1952.Scale: 504, 440, 412, 372, 328, 316, 280, 252vs. - 1'59"

12.(Nyamwezi) HARUSI (Wedding tune) - 'Malimba" (13 reeds, one-manual, box with mirliton and sound-hole) played by by Ngayamiso Kitunga from Nzenga, Tabora, Tanzania, 1950. TR-148 (Al) Scale: 488, 448, 416, 372, 336, 320, 284, 244 vs. - 1'27"

13.(Venda) BIDERA - "Mbila deza" (24 reeds, 2 manuals, board resonator) by Baranganani Mudzanani from Sibasa, Transvaal, S.A. 1959. TR-193 (A4). Scale: 496, 448, 412, 372, 336, 308, 272, 248vs. - 1'25"

14. (Njanja) MAGONDE (Song for the Chief) - 'Njari dza MaNjanja" (27 reeds, manuals, board, calabash resonator) played by Chabarwa Musanda Mayo Sinyoro from Rusapi, Rhodesia, 1948. TR-175 (B3). One of the best known oId traditional tunes of the country with 400 years of tradition behind it - 1'45"

15. (Karanga) GOROROMBE YAVAKURU (The Gororombe dance of the elders) - Duet with "Njari" (23 and 29 reeds, 2 manuals, board, calabash resonator) by Saimoni Mashoko and Manyoni Wanyamandi from Makamure, Chibi, Rhodesia, 1949. TR-172(131). Scale: 576, 528, 480, 440, 404, 356, 320, 288 vs. - 1'36"

16. (Mbunda) SITIMA SENDA NA MOTO (The train goes with fire) - 'Kathandi" (14 reeds, 2 manuals, fan-shaped with external gourd resonator and mirliton) by Josiasi Yemba Mate from Mongu, W. Zambia, 1952. TR-184 (A2). Scale: 388, 344, 308, 272, 244, 228, 210, I94 vs. - 2'34"

17. (Mbunda) TAMBUKA NA LIKISHI (The Mask dance) As No.6. TR-184 (A4) This isd a genuine African impression of the emotion surrounding a dance in masks, rather than music of the dance itself. Towards this end it would appear that the dancer removes the mask and reveals himself to his friends. Barotseland is rthe furthest south of all places where carved wooden masks are made and is said to be a West African cultural intrusion. Further south only grass masks are made - 2'01"

18. (Binza) MUZEZE (Prisoner, dance the Muzeze) - "Ekembe" (10 reeds, 1 manual, box with sound-hole) played by Engbaka Philippe at Aketi, N. Zaire, 1952. TR-128 (A5). A friend sat beside the player with another Ekembe on which he played only a single reiterated note as accompaniment - "You prisoner, dance the Muzeze for me - I am a policeman, a man of authority and force - you must listen and do what I tell you" The policeman insisted that any man he arrested should dance before him all the way to the police station - 2'04"

19. (Medje) NEMAN(iOLIA - "Neikembe" (11 reeds, 1 manual, box with sound-hole) played by Ebogoma Gabriel at Ebandrombi, Medje, N. Zaire, 1952. TR-120 (132) - 1'22"

10. (Medje) DZOLI - As No. 9. TR-120 (B4). This Medje player, like the Luba (nos. 3 and 10) also played in more than one mode, retuning his instrument for the purpose. His two modes were measured as follows: First: 720, 640, 592, 528, 480, 432, 396, 360, 320, 264, 216 vs. Second: 800, 712, 656, 608, 544, 488, 400, 364, 324, 276, 244vs. The tune appears to be hexatonic. (The second tuning was hurried, some of the octaves not quite in tune) - 1'58"

These recordings were made by Dr.Hugh Tracey in the early fifties for The International Library of African Music and are reproduced here with his permission and that of the Library. First published on Folktrax cassettes 1976.

This family of small plucked reed instruments is unique to Africa and is widely spread throughout the continent. They have been played in large ensembles since the fifteenth century, when they were observed by French explorers on their way to India. Over a hundred varieties are still made and played by skilled musicians of as many peoples. Wind-blown reed instruments are well-known elsewhere but plucked reeds are rare - their nearest relative being perhaps the mechanical musical boxes of eighteenth century Europe. The European instrument had a comb of metal with teeth, or reeds of different lengths which were plucked by pins set into a cylinder. It could therefore play set tunes only. The African instrument, having an array of single reeds all of which can be tuned to whatever scale is desired, and played by the swiftly moving tips of the thumbs and first fingers of the musician, has proved to be far more versatile than its stereotyped junior.

The average instrument of this family is small, about the size of a book, with reeds of hammered iron and sometimes of cane or bamboo. It is found under a large number of names, the most common in Central Africa being variations of the name 'Likembe'; and in the region of the Zambesi River, where it shows its greatest development, the"Mbira". Five varieties of sound-board can he distinguished, each peculiar to its own region, and the tuning employed in either five, six or seven interval scales, is also characteristic of the local group or language.

Together with the xylophones, the Mbira family is perhaps the most musically important of all African instruments. As for the music of which it is capable, the description of a sixteenth century Portuguese priest still holds good: They strike the keys as lightly as a good player strikes those of the harpsichord. Thus the irons being shaken, and the blows resounding above the hollow of the bowl, they produce altogether a sweet and gentle harmony of accordant sounds - Hugh Tracey D. Mus. (Hon.)

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