What is a Mbira? Google Doodle Celebrates Musical Instrument From Zimbabwe

Today's Google Doodle is celebrating Zimbabwe's national instrument, the mbira, for Zimbabwe's Culture Week. The Google Doodle follows a Zimbabwean girl's experience of discovering and learning to play the mbira.

The Google Doodle begins with an animation of a young girl walking with her mother, stopping to listen to an elderly man play the mbira. Google users are then invited to learn to play a virtual mbira, by hovering their mouse over the keys, as they play a traditional song called "Nhemamusasa."

The second chapter of the animation sees a man making a mbira for the young girl, and the third sees the girl, now older, playing the mbria as others play various instruments and dance.

Finally, the animation sees the young girl as an adult, playing with a band to a large crowd. In the end, she gives away her mbira to a young boy, as her journey comes full circle. Her journey also reflects the circular nature of mbira music, which has no phrases, and no beginning or end.

Throughout the Google Doodle, users will also get to play songs including "Taireva," and "Chemutengure," before getting to free play.

Mbira Google Doodle
Google Doodle celebrates the mbira, the national instrument of Zimbabwe. Google Doodle

What is the mbira?

The mbira originated in southern Africa and has played a key role in the traditions and cultural identity of Zimbabwe's Shona people for centuries.

The instrument features prominently in Shona ceremonies and is a crucial link to the past, as it is a way of playing songs that have been passed down for hundreds of years. The mbira was traditionally played by men, but in recent years Zimbabwean women have started playing the instrument and are pushing its sound in a contemporary direction.

What is the mbira made of?

The mbira is a 1,000-year-old instrument made from a handheld hardwood soundboard (gwariva) and a series of thin metal keys, which are plucked by the thumbs and forefinger.

A large hollow gourd (deze) amplifies the sound, and materials like bottle caps or beads can be fixed to the soundboard to create the mbira's buzzing sound. The buzzing sound is an essential part of the instrument which adds depth to the tones and increases the volume.

Lisa Takehana, who designed the game, said: "Because we're celebrating a musical instrument, we knew we wanted our audience to experience the beauty of the mbira by playing a digital version and listening to a variety of songs that spanned traditional to contemporary.

"But what makes the mbira truly magical is that they come with thousands of years worth of history and culture, and it was essential to us to represent it beyond just their technical components."

Takehana also explains how the Google Doodle team wanted to make the game reflective of an authentic experience of the mbira: "Throughout the development process, we worked closely with the friends we made from our Zimbabwe trip, mbira experts, and Shona consultants to write the narrative that aligned with their values, and made sure we represented the mbira and culture with as much integrity as possible."

Mbira Google Doodle
Today's Google Doodle follows the journey of a young girl as she discovers the mbira. Google Doodle

South African Doodler Jonathan Shneier, who led the engineering, said: "What stands out to me is the sense of community, belonging, and pride associated with the mbira, and the variety of ways it weaves itself into people's lives, from the traditional to the modern.

"We've tried to give people around the world a taste of a broad and deep cultural tradition that isn't very well known outside its homeland, and to give the people of Zimbabwe a chance to stand up and be seen, to be proud of what is uniquely theirs.

"I hope we've given people just enough to pique their curiosity and encourage them to go out and learn more; maybe even pick up an instrument and give it a try!"