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 soundbox 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 also been 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 prototype I produced, 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. It, in some ways, reminds the ethereal 'likembé' sound.

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.
re-adaptations of the instrument.

The first is the highly efficient tune system I have adopted. The second is the shape, quality, and material of the metal strips. Let's examine both aspects in depth.
mbirafon 3
Each of the eight metal strips is held by a cylindrical support inserted in the wooden board. This cylindrical support (1.42" in length, and 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 precisely 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 adjusts the note's pitch both vertically and horizontally. Vertically the cap nut regulates the height of the metal strip in respect of the bridge level. Horizontally the screw precisely locks up the note's pitch produced by the vibration of the metal strip.
mbirafon 4
This particular tuning system, made the mbirafon, as far as I know, the only genuinely 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 specific tuning and played indefinitely, keeping that given tuning until the player decides to set up a new one.

The second peculiar feature of the mbirafon is the shape and material of its metal strips. Its steel rods have a circular section and come from an old type of automatic umbrella 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 awhile, I find such a kind of old, broken down umbrellas, and I recycle their highly flexible steel rods to make a mbirafon. Since these parts are getting harder to find, I can only make a limited number of pieces. They are prototypes not available for sale.

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

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

A final word about the instrument's bridge: made of aluminum, aesthetically coherent 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.
Musique d'Afrique - Sanza
Several interesting pages about the African lamellophone, in French language.

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.

compact discs

mbirafon sounds # 1
audio samples 6
mbirafon sounds # 2
audio samples 7
mbirafon sounds # 3
audio samples 8
mbirafon sounds # 4
audio samples 9
mbirafon sounds # 5
audio samples 10

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