Lamellophone from the Congo
Lamellophone from the Congo

October 2, 2015: Lamellophone from the Congo

Artifact of the Week: Chisanji (Mbira), Congo

Collected in 1920s or 1930s from the Ituri Forest of the Congo by Reverend Dr. Roy Woodhams

The chisanji belongs to the class of instruments termed lamellophones (or mbira), from the Latin lamella, meaning “plate,” and the Greek phonos meaning “sound.” Evidence indicates that lamellophones were developed around 3,000 years ago in what is now Cameroon. The “keys” of these early lamellophones, called lamellae, were likely made from raffia palms, a plant used intensively in the region for fiber and other material needs. The stiffness of raffia epidermis allows pieces of its wood to resonate when struck. Musicologist Gerhard Kubik suggests, “Strips from the epidermis of a raffia stem leaf almost automatically lend themselves to discovery of the principle of the lamellophone.”

The lamellophone spread from West Africa as populations migrated. Bantu-speaking groups moving southward brought the lamellophone to Eastern and Central Africa, including the Congo, where this chisanji is from. The introduction of iron lamellae likely developed in multiple locations, including the Kantaga Area of the Congo, as iron metallurgy flourished in the early centuries of the Common Era. The refinement of the iron making process around 1000-1100 CE in Zimbabwe led to a new era in lamellophone technology, showcasing complex, multi-note instruments. From the 15th century and onwards, this advanced lamellophone technology spread from Zimbabwe into Central Africa and then beyond, carried further by Portuguese traders.

The tuning of lamellophones can vary by region, maker, intended use, and idiosyncrasies from manufacture. Unlike a Western keyboard, with notes arranged in a line from lowest to highest pitch, the lamellophone is generally arranged with the lowest notes in the middle and sequentially higher pitches alternating between the right and left sides of the lineup as you head towards the edges. This arrangement allows easy access to the lamellae as the instrument is played with the thumbs and forefingers.

Media Resources

Check out a song played with a lamellophone:


Check out a contemporary electric lamellophone in an improvisational jazz arrangement:


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