Mbirafon is a modern, tunable variant of a well known African musical instrument widespread in the South Saharan areas.

A percussion instrument belonging to the category of plucked idiophones (lamellophones or lamellaphones), it consists of a wooden soundboard or sound box with a variable number of keys (strips made by metal or wood) attached to the soundboard. The instrument is played holding the soundboard with both hands, and plucking the metal strips with thumbs, or other fingers, to produce a rhythmic melody.
The lamellophones have very different shapes and sizes, and their soundboards are built with various materials, including wood, metal cans, coconut shells, gourds, to mention the most common. The number of traditional African types is endless, as well as the variety of names the instrument is known among the ethnic groups throughout black Africa ('mbira', 'sanza', 'kalimba', 'marimba' to name a few).

Lately the lamellophone has been also made available in the Western world, and can be easily purchased in a diverse assortment of models, both acoustic and electric.

To be more precise, the mbirafon musical instrument I produce, could be considered as a modern tunable variant of that particular lamellophone named 'likembé', widespread among the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri forest, Central Africa. In fact it reminds the ethereal 'likembé' sound, more than any other African lamellophone.

I have constructed the mbirafon 8-note musical instrument after several years of discographical research and study of the subject. Two are the main distinctive features of the mbirafon, that made it something else if compared with the original African models and the new Western
re-adaptations of the instrument.

The first is the highly efficient tune system I have adopted. The second is the shape, quality and material its strips of metal are made. Let's examine both aspects in depth.
mbirafon 3
Each of the eight metal strips are held by a cylindrical support inserted in the wooden board. This cylindrical support (1.42" in length, and 0,156" in diameter) has a threading on one end and a small hole with a screw on the other. A cap nut, screwed on the thread, has the function to hold and adjust the height of the cylindrical support inserted in the wooden board. On the other end of the cylindrical support, the metal strip passes through the small hole and it can be tight by the screw. Sliding back and forth the metal strip throughout the hole, the key of the note varies, and tightening the screw, the metal strip can be stopped, remaining exactly tuned in that position. The tighten screw avoid any possible slipping of the metal strip while playing the instrument, and its consequent loss of tune.

In conclusion the cylindrical support has been conceived to adjust the note's tune both vertically and horizontally. Vertically the cap nut regulate the height of the metal strip in respect of the bridge level. Horizontally the screw precisely locks up the tone of the metal strip.
mbirafon 4
This particular tune system, made the mbirafon, as far as I know, the only truly tunable lamellophone existing today. Any other model, while being played, is bound to lose its tune. The mbirafon, on the contrary, can be set with a specific tune, and played indefinitely keeping that given tune, until the player decide to set up a new one.

The second peculiar feature of the mbirafon is the shape and material the metal strips are made. Its steel rods have a circular section, and come from an early type of automatic umbrella apparently no longer available in the market today. They are the kind of umbrella that opens up automatically, with a click of a button.

Every once in a while I find such a kind of old, broken down umbrellas, and I recycle their highly flexible steel rods to made a mbirafon. Since these parts are getting harder to find, the mbirafon can be only made in a limited number of pieces.

Those umbrella steel rods, give the instrument an unique sound quality, far different from any other model of lamellophone, as long as resonance, warmness, volume and timbre is concerned.

The thin mbirafon mahogany wooden board, finished with shellac and wax, increases both instrument elegance and sound resonance, making it handy to play.

A final word about the instrument's bridge. Made of aluminum, in accordance with the whole instrument's aspect, it is functionally designed to avoid any unwanted misalignment of the steel rods.
mbirafon 5

related links
N. Scott Robinson
World music and percussion. An essay about the mbira musical instrument.
http://www.nscottrobinson.com/mbira.php
Musique d'Afrique - Sanza
Several interesting pages about the African lamellophone, in French language.
http://africamusica.skynetblogs.be

selected discography
Elanga Nkake, Losokya (Fonti musicali CD fmd 302).
Centrafrique, Musique Gbáyá, Chánts à penser (Ocora CD C580008).
Centrafrique, Musique Gbáyá, Chánts à penser (2) (Ocora CD C560079).
Centrafrique/Central Africa, Musique pur sanza en pays Gbaya/Sanza Music in the Land of the Gbaya (VDE CD-755).
Music of Africa Series 28, Musical Instruments, Reeds (Mbira), Recordings by Hugh Tracey (CD MOA28).

selected bibliography
Jean-Sébastien Laurenty, Les Sanza du Congo, Two Volumes, Musee Royal de L'Afrique Centrale, Tervurern Belgique 1962.
Jean-Sébastien Laurenty, L'Organologie du Zaïre, Tome II, Les Sanza, Les Xylophones, Les Tambours à fente, Musee Royal de L'Afrique Centrale, Tervurern Belgique 1995.
François Borel, Collections d'Instruments de Musique, Les Sanza, Musée d'Etnographie, Neuchâtel, Suisse 1986.
Vincent Dehoux, Chants à Penser Gbaya (Centrafrique), Editions Selaf, Paris 1986.
Gerhard Kubik, Kalimba, Nsansi, Mbira, Lamellophon in Afrika, Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin 1998.
Gerhard Kubik, Africa and the Blues, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson 1999.
Paul F. Berliner, The Soul of Mbira, Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbawe with an Appendix: Building and Playing a Shona Karimba, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1978.
Marie Thérèse Brincard (edited by), Sounding Forms, African Musical Instruments, The American Federation of Arts, New York 1989.
mbirafon




sculptures
drawings
mbirafon
compact discs
order

mbirafon sounds # 1
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mbirafon sounds # 2
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mbirafon sounds # 3
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mbirafon sounds # 4
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mbirafon sounds # 5
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