Introduction: Purchasing a Mbira
Purchasing a mbira is a significant step for the would-be mbira student/player. Often, most students in the West know of only a handful of mbira makers. Mbira makers, such as Chigamba, Tirikoti, Bvure, Mhlanga and Mujuru are fairly well known outside Zimbabwe. They all sell mbira at varying prices. Mbiras come varying physical sizes, metal strength, tonal qualities and age. The physical size is dictated by the "gwariwa" or soundboard. Smaller soundboards (6.5" x 7.0") are generally well suited for people with small to medium hands while larger sound-boards are suited for people with bigger hands. Large sound boards tend to be 7.5"x8.5" or larger. For first time purchasers, it is important that you get a mbira that fairly matches the size of your hands.
The second most important thing is to make sure the mbira is in tune and the keys are securely bound to the soundboard. If the keys are not properly bound to the soundboard, they lose their tuning easily. This is often difficult to ascertain when one purchases the instrument by mail. (I always make sure that I personally play and approve of the tuning and binding on the mbiras that I sell before I make them part of my inventory. I also make sure that the mbira is overly securely-packed for shipment). This is particularly important for new students who are not familiar with the scale of mbira. On the average, a package send through the postal service or any other carrier, is dropped from a height of 6 feet at least 4 times!
Any new mbira which has not been played exhibits the look, feel and sound of any new instrument. It 'feels' rigid and stiff. New mbira owners should not worry. As we say in Shona, "Mbira ichiri mbishi" or "This mbira is still raw" or "this is a virgin Mbira". With continuous playing, the instrument becomes 'cooked' and will get better. The more playing time the mbira gets, the more the metal keys 'soften' and its tones get louder, longer and more pronounced. A 'played' or 'used' or 'cooked'' mbira has smoother key-ends has a better feel and sounds more established. It also has the advantage that the keys and tuning has stabilized. With proper care a 'cooked' mbira should not need any tuning at all. For this reason, our seasoned mbiras are priced slightly higher than our virgin mbiras. It is a rewarding experience to start with a virgin mbira and experience the evolution in the feel and sound of the instrument as it ages. If you are able to purchase a mbira in person, make sure the seller will play your favorite tune or at least his/her favorite tune on the Mbira you are about to purchase. This ensures that basic keys are generally tuned well and no keys need immediate reinforcement/re-tuning. As a new mbira owner, you might also want to record each key while it is still in its original tuning. This will help in the event that you have to retune one or more keys on the instrument. While knowing how to tune a mbira in not necessary, players often find that being able to do your own tuning in critical. For this reason, I strongly recommend that new mbira owners acquire a tuning kit and take the time to learn how to tune their own mbiras.