Art of crafting and playing Mbira/Sansi, the finger-plucking traditional musical instrument in Malawi and Zimbabwe

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Inscribed in 2020 (15.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

© Itwale Photographics and Communication, Malawi and Ministry of Rural Development, Promotion and Preservation of National Culture and Heritage, Zimbabwe, 2017

The art of crafting and playing Mbira/Sansi, the finger-plucking traditional musical instrument in Malawi and Zimbabwe, plays a key role in the communities concerned. The basic Mbira/Sansi instrument consists of a wooden board with metal keys attached on top, and the instrument is sometimes mounted on a calabash/wooden resonator. The metal keys are made from spoon handles, bicycle spokes or spring wire, and the keys are plucked using the thumbs or a combination of thumbs and fingers. The Mbira/Sansi produces a fluid percussive sound considered to be mystic, tranquil and enchanting. An important feature of the music is its cyclical nature, where each new repetition of a theme varies slightly from the last and incorporates numerous interwoven melodies. The instrument can be played on its own or with multiple instruments in a group. Traditionally, transmission has occurred through apprenticeship within the family circle. Today, however, transmission also takes place through formal coaching, and Mbira/Sansi making and playing is taught in some schools. The songs contain important messages, with some guarding children against bad behaviour while others condemn negative behaviour in the community for example. The music is also used to communicate information about events that happened in the past. Wherever and whenever it is played, the Mbira/Sansi instrument acts as a ‘weapon’ for condemning violence and other societal ills.

Awareness-raising workshop in Zimbabwe that led to Mbira (Sansi) nomination
Mbira custodian and player Tafanei David Gweshe, addressing Mbira playing groups on Mbira (Sansi) nomination
Group leader, Sekuru Chiko Chazunguza of Dzimbanhete Arts Interactions, signing a consent form for Mbira (Sansi) nomination
Malawi version of Mbira (Sansi) musical instrument without a resonator
A Zimbabwean Mbira practitioner, Salani Machoba, showing Mbira (Sansi) instruments
Mbira (Sansi) instrument complete with resonator
Hope Masike, Zimbabwe's leading female Mbira (Sansi) player
Charles Mkanthama, a Mbira (Sansi) practitioner from Malawi
A group of Mbira (Sansi) players performing in a session
Participants dance to Mbira (Sansi) music