Introducing the Kankobela, Mbira, Kalimba…

In our celebration of music and all things local with the release of our Zambezi music video collaboration with EC Bling, today’s Homeschool Lesson traces the tunes of Africa to one popular instrument – the African thumb piano. This piano has deep roots in African culture, much like the xylophone, and has travelled over seas to other parts of the world but it’s believed that the original version originated in Africa.

Some of the songs played from this simple instrument are simply breathtaking. Like this version of The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel and this Zambian musician!

While it’s known as a “thumb piano”, it is often played with more fingers than just the thumbs.

It also has several names across the African continent, because of the differences in language and because the different tribes developed their own distinct types of thumb pianos over the centuries.

For instance, in Zambia the BaTonga people call it a Kankobela. The Shona people in Zimbabwe call it the mbira. It’s the likembe and sanza in Congo, the ikembe in Rwanda and Burundi, the prempremsuah and gyilgo in Ghana, the ilimba and chirimba in Tanzania, the kadongo and akogo in Uganda, and the kalimba in Kenya.

The key parts to this percussion instrument, that always remain the same are the Keys of different length and shape, which are Mostly made of iron. Although bicycle spikes, bed springs, and other metals can be recycled and used, or even bamboo and other types of wood. The keys are connected to a type of resonator, which is often a wooden box, a hollow gourd or just a hardwood board that is placed inside a large calabash.

The music from the thumb piano provides entertainment but is also incorporated in ceremonies and used for religious purposes, such as attracting the spirits…

Make your own thumb piano in this easy Homeschool Lesson, using a cardboard box and hair clips!