27.04.12 Mbira Making Workshop with Master Mbira Maker, Sebastian Pott
30th March - 3rd April 2012
Arriving at Bowden House on a beautifully sunny Friday morning, I found a small group of likeminded souls ready to make ourselves an mbira each. We had 5 days - time enough. Sebastian Pott, our expert master for the workshop, brought a selection of timber for our soundboards and talked us through the different qualities of Paduak, Walnut, Sapele and Mubvamaropa. Having selected a board of timber each, we got on with sawing, planing and carving with Sebastian giving help when needed. He was totally keen that we should make these instruments for ourselves.
The following day with bridges and bars fitted to our mbiras, we were now onto the major work - making the keys. Starting with round steel rods, we had to transform these into even, tuned mbira keys via hammer - under Sebastian’s watchful eye. We carefully shaped the steel so that it would be widest at its tip, thinning as you went down. Our first keys took an average of an hour to hammer until right. We had 3 days left and needed 24 keys each. The sunny days allowed us to work outside when we wanted and the speed began to pick up. We got busy!
Slowly, our boards began to fill with keys edging their way from bass notes upwards. We began each key with a slightly shorter piece of rod and this produced a slightly higher tuned key, which in turn produced the typical layout of the mbira dza vadzimu. Also, each person's character was beginning to be reflected in their boards and keys. Next was filing and Sebastian showed us how to remove metal from the right area of the key to get the note to sound sharper or flatter as required until the whole mbira is in tune and finished. It was hard, precise work that you had to be very patient with.
Andy was the first to finish his mbira and it sounded great! Chartwell, who had been teasing us all constantly asking if he can borrow our mbiras to play knowing full well that we have only some keys, was beaming as he tried it out - Wow! Wow! Wow!
Sebastian's total generosity in sharing his hard won, self-taught skills gave us all a wonderful grounding in mbira making. He was good humoured throughout, hard working, exacting and very understanding.
by Gilbert Stirling Lee