Here's why a Google Doodle is celebrating the Zimbabwean “thumb piano” instrument

A new interactive Google Doodle lets users try their hand at a traditional Zimbabwean instrument that has been played for over 1,000 years.

Today’s Doodle celebrates Zimbabwe’s national instrument, the mbira, as Zimbabwe’s Culture Week begins.

Here’s everything you need to know about it:

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What is a mbira?

The mbira consists of a handheld hardwood soundboard (gwariva) affixed with a series of thin metal keys, which are plucked by the thumbs and forefinger – it is sometimes called a ‘thumb piano’.

A large hollow gourd (deze) provides amplification, and bottle caps or beads can be attached to the soundboard to create the instrument’s signature buzzing sound.

What sort of music is played on it?

The music played on the instrument is also called ‘mbira’, and often consists of two or more interlocking parts.

Players will improvise over the top of these musical components, so no two performances are exactly alike.

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The mbira originated in Southern Africa, and has long played an integral role in the traditions and cultural identity of Zimbabwe’s Shona people; some 11 million people strong in the country.

A variety of Shona ceremonies make prominent use of the instrument, a vital link to the past through songs that have been passed down through generations over hundreds of years.

“Without a doubt the most enjoyable thing about working on this Doodle was being able to experience and learn about Mbira from the Shona people in Zimbabwe,” said Doodle producer Colin Duffy.

“Prior to this project I could not tell you much about Mbira but the kindness, depth of history and open mindedness that the people of Zimbabwe showed our group was life-changing.”

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The mbira was popularised in the 1980s following the success of musician Thomas Mapfumo, who included mbira on stage alongside modern rock instruments such as electric guitars and drum kits.

How does the Doodle work?

The Doodle tells a story through the lens of a Zimbabwean girl who learns to play the mbira (the instrument was traditionally played by men, but in recent years Zimbabwean women have increasingly taken up the instrument).

The Doodle offers users the chance to ‘play’ the instrument for themselves, hovering a cursor over the correct key as notes are played.

“What makes the mbira truly magical is that they come with thousands of years worth of history and culture,” said Doodle designer Lisa Takehana.

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“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.”

South African Doodler Jonathan Shneier – who led the project – said: “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!”

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