Musical inspiration from a fresh perspective
What's an Array Mbira?
It's a lamellaphone from Array Instruments --a plucked-tine instrument based on a much smaller version from the Zimbabwean folk tradition. Using fine woods, interesting inlays, and spring-steel tines that seldom if ever need tuning, Array System inventor Bill Wesley and craftsman Patrick Hadley have re-interpreted the old mbira in a much grander form that features equal temperament. Their Array is a two-dimensional layout of pitches that's immediately friendly to play, with columns of stacked octaves and diagonal rows laid out in ascending fifths. The timbre of this modern-age mbira has been compared to steel drum combined with harp, and it has built-in pickups that allow stereo-effect amplification and recording.
Here's the three octave baby 'bira that got me hooked. It's black lacquer over royal mahogany, with Hawaiian koa wood trim. It has 90 tines of rich, full sound, and it fits in a mixer bag.
Here's my four octave custom beauty. A focal point of my studio, I'm sure it's one of the prettiest Array Mbiras on the planet. Its top has a single sheet of Chilean firebush burl veneer lacquered to a high gloss, and the sides are redwood burl accented with black. After trying the various instrument sizes, I like 120 tines the best because the spacing suits my hands.
Click any of the photos below for a larger version!
This mahogany-topped four octave is more typical of the acoustic Array Instruments, which are inspired by interesting woods as they become available, such as wenge, zebrawood, paduak, rosewood, sapele, and even mesquite. It has bubinga sides and features inlaid trim. Photo by Patrick.
This spectacular mbira is done in maple burl veneer, whose curly figures contrast with stripey sides of African sapele. It's like tone-on-tone caramel candy! Patrick took the second shot.
A couple of "ultra-deluxe" instruments were built with psychedelically patterned camphor burl veneer tops and zebrawood sides, and I fell for this one--a one-off three octave instrument with a wedge shaped body and interestingly cut sound holes. It's a loud little beast, and a true musical art work. Because of its shape, it's a perfect lap instrument.
Here's an example of Array Instruments' latest innovation, the conveniently portable and pure-sounding solid body model. Mine is made from jatoba wood with Peruvian walnut trim, and I like how the inlay gives it a world-instrument look.
And here's the custom five octave of lacquered mahogany and paduak I had for a while before exchanging it for a couple of smaller instruments. With its 150 tines, it sure looked impressive in my studio. Because the deep rumble of an mbira that size is hard to beat, I later acquired another five octave of natural mahogany and cherry. Inspired by the musical legacy of the Shona, I gave it removable ancestral-spirit-calling buzzers! They're less romantic than shells and bottle caps, but no less evocative. I used lengths of stainless steel ball chain laid across the tines and sewed onto a fastener of velcro tape.
Bill and Patrick make other exotic Array instruments such as the unique Nail Violin. Find out about them here!
Fellow Array enthusiasts, I'm always happy to hear from you! Join me in ArrayPlayers, the Yahoo discussion group for Array System instruments: