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Mbila dzamadeza: "#1"

G (closest chromatic pitch)
Mbangiseni Philemon Nemukula (Vho-Netshamutshedzi)
Tshidzini, Thohoyandou, RSA
Ian Garrett bought this mbila from Vho-Netshamutshedzi in late 2022. Key layout and tuning seem quite idiosyncratic: The topmost two keys of the lower rank are tuned about an octave lower than the topmost two in the middle rank, (which exactly match the lowest two on the right hand side) so that the sequence of pitch classes in both ranks is 2-1-7-6-4-5-1 (top-down). The lower rank's dominant overtones are tuned to match the fundamentals of the RT/RI keys which are two octaves and two scale degrees higher, i.e. B1,/RT3', B4,/RI6'a

The B1 key is 14ct sharper than the down-octavated-L1'. The B2 key is 40ct sharper than the down-octavated-L2', and 111ct flatter than the down-octavated-RT3'. Thus, pitch class 3 does not appear at all on the left side. Instead, pitch L1/B1 appears twice - but not really: L1 is 110ct lower than B1, and exactly a semitone (100ct) lower than down-octavated-RT1'.

As a result, B7L1B1B2RT3 sounds like a scale with the (approximate) intervals: 1.5st 1st 2st 1st (semitone). Effectively this makes an 8-tone scale in the lowest octave. As two instruments were tuned in exactly the same way, and their overtones and same pitches evidently have been tuned with great care, it seems unlikely that there is anything accidental in this tuning.

One could speculate that the maker wanted to have two differently tuned L1 tones available. Another theory would be that B1 and B2 are very flat-tuned B2 and B3. But given the near-octave intervals to L1' and L2' that seems less likely, although Andrew Tracey, on a tuning diagram of James Munyai's mbila, also marked these keys as "flat" (Munyai lived in the same area as Vho-Netshamutshedzi).

The (now missing) B3 key was synthesised by detuning B2 to down-octavated-RT3'.
Ian Garrett
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Capetown, South Africa

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