The KTabS Notebook
A Traditional Mbira Trick in KTabS

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In this monthly column, I explore the many features of KTabS, the totally wonderful Kalimba Tablature Software. My hope is to share my knowledge of this program with others so that they too can enjoy the creative boost that KTabS affords. But if the KTabS Notebook installments dribble out too slowly for you over the months, you can always go and drink directly from the fire hydrant—check out the extensive tutorial on the actual KTabS site.

 

The Mbira Dzavadzimu

Two Mbiras

It is thought that the African Karimba is the original metal-tined thumb piano from Africa, dating back to about 1300 years ago. This instrument was modified in many different ways and became many different instruments, the best known of which is the mbira dzavadzimu, or the great mbira of the voices of the ancestors. I spoke to someone who just got back from Zimbabwe, where the mbira dzavadzimu has been played for perhaps 1000 years. He had been looking for mbira players, and he always got answers like "Oh yes, my father used to play that before he got old, and now he has forgotten how to play." On the other hand, there are surely more mbira players outside of Africa than inside. Of all the traditional African lamellaphones, the mbira is the one that is most played today.

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Mbira Tablature in KTabS

KTabS is general enough that it can do tablature for virtually any thumb piano and any note layout, and the mbira is no exception. We show here the basic look of the mbira tablature:

Mbira Tablature

In this tablature, the row of long tines on the left (see photo of mbira above) is represented by colored tines and the upper tines on both left and right (see mbira photo) are metal colored here.

As always, the music reads from the bottom to the top. Most mbira music is in the 12/8 time signature and is made up of a four bar phrase that is repeated, and several variations on those 4 bar phrases are repeated until the player decides it is time to move on. These repetitions can easily be achieved in KTabS.

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Instructional Book by B. Michael Williams

B. Michael Williams is one of the mbira stars in the firmament of non-African players. He has studied the music in depth, and has written an instructional book of mbira music written out in a tablature form.

I have taken the music for the traditional Shona mbira song Nyamaropa, and translated it from B. Michael Williams' book and put it into KTabS tablature. Why? Because my thumbs cannot yet play the song from Michael's tablature, but KTabS can play it for me and show me how the song goes while it plays through my computer's speakers.

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Playing Two Parts at Once: Kushaura and Kutsinhira

The song Nyamaropa in B. Michael Williams' book has two different parts to be played by two different mbira players. The Kushaura part leads the other part by a beat, and the Kutsinhira part is a beat behind the Kushaura part. In some cases, the Kushaura and Kutsinhira parts are the exact same part, just shifted by a beat. It sounds so cool - as modern a sound as someone playing through digital delay, only this was figured out by people centuries ago, without the benefit of digital delay OR KTabS.

Actually, there is a mechansim to take any music you have in KTabS and copy and shift it by a beat to turn the original piece into the Kushaura and the shifted version as the Kutsinhira part. Not everything will sound very good this way but, amazingly, adding these two shifted parts together has a profound and almost indescribable influence on some music.

To illustrate this, I invite you to listen to this demonstration of KTabS playing the Kushaura part first and then the two parts together in the song Nymaropa.

Also available are the KTabS files for the full song in Kushaura and also in the Kutsinhira part. If you want to play these at the same time, I invite you to read the instructions for playing two parts at once.

Or you can wait till next month when we put it all together for you!

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Next Month: More on Kushaura and Kutsinhira Mbira Parts

This month, we let you hear what the basic phrase of Nyamaropa sounds like in Kushaura and Kutsinhira parts together, and we gave you the KTabS files for the full Kushaura and Kutsinhira parts, and linked to instructions for how to play them together. Next month, we will share the MP3 of the entire Nyamaropa song in both parts, and we'll show you exactly how to use KTabS to take any song and make a delayed copy that, when played with the original, can make Kushaura and Kutsinhira parts for.... Bach? Well, why not? Try this with your own compositions!

Of course, those ingenious ancient Africans did it without the benefit of digital delay OR KTabS. It is things like this that make me marvel at the brilliance of these people who lived 1000 years ago. If we do not see that brilliance now, it is partly a problem with our eyes, and partly the problem of what westernization and modernization have done to Africa.