Various kinds of plucked idiophones and lamellaphones have existed in Africa for thousands of years. The tines were originally made of bamboo but over the years metal keys have been developed. These types of instrument appear to have been invented twice in Africa: a wood or bamboo-tined instrument appeared on the west coast of Africa about 3,000 years ago, and metal-tined lamellophones appeared in the Zambezi River valley around 1,300 years ago. Metal-tined instruments traveled all across the continent, becoming popular among the Shona of Zimbabwe (from which the word mbira comes) and other indigenous groups in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
In the mid-1950s mbira instruments were the basis for the development of the kalimba, a westernized version designed and promoted by the ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, leading to a great expansion of its distribution outside Africa.
It is common on African mbira and other lamellophones to have the lowest notes in the center with higher notes to the far left and the far right—this is an ergonomic nicety, in that the thumb can pivot such that all the tines are easy to reach. However, traditional African tunings use notes that do not lie on the grid of the Western tempered scale, and traditional mbira note layouts are often idiosyncratic, sometimes with adjacent tines making part of a scale, but then an odd note thrown in that defies the pattern.
Historically, mbira tunings have not mapped exactly onto Western scales; it is not unusual for a seven-note sequence on a mbira to be "stretched" over a greater range of frequencies than a Western octave and for the intervals between notes to be different from those in a Western scale. Tunings have often been distinctive with variations over time and from one player to another. A mbira key produces a rich complex of overtones that varies from one instrument to another depending on its maker's intentions and accidents of fabrication, such that some instruments simply sound better when some notes of a familiar tuning are pushed. With the increased popularity of the mbira dzavadzimu in North America, Europe, and Japan in recent decades, Zimbabwean mbira makers have tended to tune their instruments more uniformly for export, but much variation is still found among mbira in their homeland.
Tunings vary from family to family referring to relative interval relationships and not to absolute pitches. The most common tuning played throughout Zimbabwe and among non-Zimbabwean mbira players worldwide is Nyamaropa, similar to the western Mixolydian mode. Names may also vary between different families; Garikayi Tirikoti has developed a "mbira orchestra" that has seven different tunings, each starting on a different interval of the same seven-note scale, where it is possible to play all instruments in a single performance. The seven tunings that Garikayi uses are: Bangidza, Nyabango, Nhemamusasa, Chakwi, Taireva, Mahororo, and Mavembe (all of which are also names of traditional songs save for Mavembe and Nyabango). The closest to what is commonly named "Nyamaropa" is his "Nhemamusasa" tuning.
In Shona music, the mbira dzavadzimu ("voice of the ancestors", national instrument of Zimbabwe) is a musical instrument that has been played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe for thousands of years. The mbira dzavadzimu is frequently played at religious ceremonies and social gatherings called mabira (sing. "bira").
A typical mbira dzavadzimu consists of between 22 and 28 keys constructed from hot- or cold-forged metal affixed to a hardwood soundboard in three different registers—two on the left, one on the right.
Mbira Nyunga Nyunga
The nyunga nyunga which normally has 15 keys, originated from Manicaland where it traditionally played the entertainment role during social gatherings and commemorations. Jeke Tapera introduced the mbira nyunga nyunga in the 1960s from Tete province of Mozambique to Kwanongoma College of African music (now United College of Music) in Bulawayo. Two keys were then added to make fifteen (Chirimumimba, 2007), in two rows. The mbira nyunga nyunga is similar in construction to the mbira dzavadzimu, but has no hole in the soundboard. Key pitch radiates out from the center, rather than from left to right.
Njani mbira has 30 to 32 keys and was also originated from Zimbabwe particularly Masvingo and Makonde.
The nhare has 23 to 24 keys and was originated from Zimbabwe. In the Zimbabwean tradition, nhare was used for rituals of communicating with God (Musikavanhu or Nyadenga).
Mbira matepe which has 26 keys originated from along the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.