Timbila Tuning Examples

In 1997, I spent 6 months in South Africa and Zimbabwe. 3 of those months saw me working at Mmabatho High School (6 years worth of students, age 12 to 18) teaching African Marimba and taking part in the Music program in general. The marimba ensemble that was there had a full set of Zim style marimbas made at Kwanongoma College. There was also a set of 6 Timbila (Chopi style marimba from Mozambique) that was in very poor repair. The timbila were also made at Kwanongoma by the late Olaf Axelsson (Maria Minnar’s father, Peta Axelsson’s husband) and originally included the F# for some odd reason. I received permission from the High School to remake these marimbas in a more traditional African tuning. I chose the Chopi Timbila tuning because that’s where these instruments got their original design from. Andrew Tracey was kind enough to email me the tuning specs and it was easy enough to turn these timbila back into their mother tuning. I was able to salvage four of the six timbila to cover baritone through soprano ranges. I replaced the buzzer system on the spun aluminum resonators in a way that brought forth a bit more buzz. I then either lowered the pitch of the resonators by reducing the opening of the mouth with PressStick, or raised the pitch by giving the bottom of the aluminum a good whack with a mallet to dent it inwards.

The kids who made up the ensemble were all in Standard 5, 6, or 7, (grades 7, 8, or 9) because the older kids in the school were too consumed by school work to be continuing in the marimba ensemble. They called themselves Morabaraba Marimba Ensemble, and together we played numerous events, firstly on the Kwanongoma marimbas that I helped them fix up and retune, then on the Timbila that we retuned to Chopi tuning, and finally on a new set of marimbas that I built in the three months that I was working there.

I offer these MP3’s as learning devices to further understand the place of tuning in the world of marimbas. Some of the pieces will sound familiar to some of you. Some of them were extracted from Dr. Andrew Tracey’s fine article entitled “Kambazithe Makolekole and his Valimba group: A glimpse of the technique of the Sena xylophone”. All examples on this website are here for educational purposes and are not for sale. No animals were harmed in the making of them. No copyrights to this or any music are held by myself or anyone else involved in this website.
1) Njiva Womera Manthanga – Two timbila.
2) Wamkwira Mwana 2 parts – Two timbila.
3) Wamkwira Mwana 3 parts – Three timbila. This piece uses a two-note cross-rhythm part transcribed into pitches on the marimba. This part can be heard coming in second. The whole piece is an octave lower than the previous version.
4) Amaxoxo – Three timbila.
5) Rugare – Four timbila.
6) Malikebo 2 phrase – Three timbila. Two phrases of a four phrase piece. This was towards the end of my stay and the kids didn’t quite learn the whole piece. This has a similar two-note cross-rhythm part transcribed onto the timbila. The cross-rhythm part is the opening one. The part is not placed accurately, though it still gives a good impression of how it makes the piece even more complex.
7) Namala Nakupangana – Two timbila with handclapping. The addition of handclapping helped to keep this song together as it’s a bit tricky.
8) Peacemaker – Three timbila and hosho.
9) Sizwe Marimba – This is the full marimba ensemble played in regular tuning (just intonation).
Well, regular despite the fact that the instruments would constantly go out of tune… The bass and baritone had huge fiberglass gourd type resonators that we were able to make sound pretty good.

The Tuning – High to Low#      Hz        Cents      Pitch
20 1024 708   C +8
19 928  538   A# +38
18 848  382   A -18
17 760  192   G -8
16 696  1240  F +40
15 618  1034  D# +34
14 564  876   D -24
13 508  695   C -5
12 464  538   A# +38
11 420  365   A -35
10 376  174   G -26
9  340  0     F   0
8  307  1023  D# +23
7  280  863   D -37
6  254  695   C -5
5  228  508   A# +8
4  208  349   G# +49
3  188  174   G -26
2  172  20    F  +20
1  154  1023  D# +23

This is the tuning as Andrew Tracey supplied it to me (he got it from a timbila that Venancio Mbande had made for him). He warned that it had been a while since Venancio had checked it. Also it was measured with a set of 54 tuning forks so it’s not accurate to the nearest cent. It’s a rough approximation of the Chopi tuning… which was good enough for me at the time. Note that two of the octaves are shrunk by 20 cents, 4 of the octaves are perfect (1200 cents), and the rest are stretched by 11 to 40 cents. Key #6 is referred to as Dawumbila, the Chopi tonic. The note that the whole scale is built around. My sense is that this is similar to the Chinese concept of Huang Chung, the Golden Tone, the one note that begets all others.Stephen Golovnin