Objects: Thumb Piano

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We’re collectors: stamps, postcards, matchbooks, magnets, the myriad small things that accumulate while traveling. Our far-flung friends often send us photos of treasures they’ve come across, with descriptions of why they caught their eye. Here is one of those found objects.


This object and I were already well acquainted before I ever saw it. The mbira (or kalimba) is a plucked idiophone which we were taught about in music class at school. I grew attached to the small, tinkling and somewhat eerie sounding instrument that you could hold and play in your hands. I found one online and told myself that I’d buy an authentic one if I ever went to Africa. About 3 years later I’d finally reached the volunteer house in Iringa, Southern Tanzania after more than 20 hours travelling. Despite my exhaustion, my malaria tablets refused to let me sleep, instead keeping me awake and frozen with fear at the haunting sound of a tinkling mbira being played by a man standing just outside the window.




Needless to say my trippy anti-malarial hallucinations were less scary after that. After trying to decide for weeks what to get my boyfriend as a present, I stumbled across (tripped over) a basket of mbiras on my way out of a shop and took great pleasure in singing creepy songs to my fellow volunteers. If you look closely you can see that the small yellow metal parts near the top are actually pictures of Pikachu, which makes this object just that bit weirder and more interesting.

—Marie-Claire Lambert

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