The Indelible Mark of the Mbira

The multi-named thumb piano is quite an important foundational instrument for contemporary music all over the world, although it’s perhaps not always recognized as such. In Congo, colonial era missionaries banned the instrument from their services, saying that its association with traditional spiritual practices sullied the sacredness of the choral music they were adopting to the musical cultures of the people they sought to convert. But, the instrument lived on in Congolese pop as guitarists in Kinshasa adapted the style to their finger picking Cuban-son infused Rumba. The instrument has also travelled far and wide beyond Africa. I’ve seen versions of the thumb piano in historical photos of Jamaican Mento bands, and it is common in Latin American musical history as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few thumb pianos made their way to the American South helping to influence the blues guitar style that originated there. Continue reading