The World’s Only Global Musical Instrument Museum ®

June 24, 2013

Exhibit Spotlight: Thumb Pianos

New exhibit in MIM’s Africa Gallery

What do sanza, chisanji, likembe, kalimba, and mbira have in common? They’re just some of the many names used for thumb pianos (or lamellaphones) featured in a new exhibit in the Africa Gallery.

For centuries, storytellers, historians, and ritual experts throughout Africa have used the thumb piano as a preferred instrument for entertainment or to accompany commemorative songs and rituals. Modern cultural exchanges between African and other international musicians have resulted in the thumb piano’s inclusion in world music and other genres.

MIM’s exhibit features a re-creation of a workshop in a central African musicians’ compound. A kiln and all the tools necessary to build musical instruments are on display, accompanied by a video to demonstrate how a thumb piano is made, from the time a tree is cut down to provide wood for the soundboard, all the way to the finished product. The exhibit also displays twenty-three thumb pianos from all over Africa, in varying shapes and sizes and made with natural and recycled materials.

Thumb pianos can be played solo or in ensemble. The most common way to play the instrument is to hold it with both hands and use the thumbs to pluck the tips of the metal lamellae, or tongues, attached to the wooden soundboard.

To learn more about thumb pianos, check out our catalog published for the opening of MIM’s 2012 special exhibition, Sanza: African Thumb Pianos, available at the Museum Store.