Mbira, sanza, kalimba, likembe, the sub-Saharan ‘thumb piano’ has many names, different sizes and number of scales depending on its region of origin, but its crystalline sound has been captivating ears since time immemorial. The first evidence of this instrument, which had bamboo blades, dates back over 3000 years to the Atlantic coast of Africa, and the oldest instruments with steel blades have been found around the Zambezi River dating from over 1300 years ago. It was also here, in present-day Zimbabwe, that the Shona culture developed and its mbira orchestras of all sizes influenced the whole continent.
The African-American musical community adopted the instrument in the 1960s under the influence of Nadi Qamar, a pianist who recorded with Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford and Buddy Colette before devoting himself to promoting the mbira, as well as a host of other African percussion instruments. “After Glow” is taken from one of his albums for the Smithsonian Institute, the organisation that preserves the treasures of the nation’s sound heritage.
But it was Maurice White, the leader of Earth Wind & Fire, who introduced the instrument to the general public. He played it constantly on recordings and in concerts throughout his career. Philip Corhan, one of the fathers of the Association For The Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, with whom White had practised in his youth, also championed it. Numerous musicians used it’s sound, from Nina Simone to Wadada Leo Smith, and even blues artist Taj Mahal played it on one track.
Soon the Cameroonian Francis Bebey was devoting long sessions to it. The recordings he made at his home have achieved cult status amongst sound afficienadoes. He was not the last to move this ‘ancient’ instrument into a future setting: Nas samples it on what remains his best album to date, Madlib found it a useful way to musically portray his strange escapes, while the Congotronics played the electric likembe in the heart of Kinshasa. In February 2021, the young American folk singer Yasmin Williams added it to her arsenal of instruments, with stunning results.
Nowadays, kalimbas westernised by English musicologist Hugh Tracey or "more authentic" thumb pianos can be found in every music shop in the world, proof if any were needed that this instrument has entered the world stage.