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Ikembe, Chisanji, Kisanji and Eleke all refer to a type of lamellaphone common amongst the Bahutu of Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo.

In Swahili the word imba means song.[1] Kuimba means to sing, as in the phrase "nitakwenda kuimba" (I go to sing). Mama means mother. Swahili, as is true of many languages, uses a type of binomial nomenclature to create new words to describe unfamiliar or new objects, occurrences and or people, based on existing words and or concepts. By combining part of the word for mother = ma with the word for song = imba using r as a connector we come up with the word marimba = mother of song. According to Credo Mutwa Vusamazulu this identifies the ancient queen of the Wakamba to the tee. We can then extrapolate from the research of A.M. Jones, quoted by Osborne that ka = small combined with the word imba = song should mean little mother of song. Another example of this is the use of the suffix -ita in Spanish as a diminutive. Thus, marimba becomes marimbita, or little marimba, which according to Credo Mutwa is exactly what a karimba is in the minds of a large number of peoples in Africa and the Americas.

Osborne cites examples of various names for these mbira from all over the continent, which have the Swahili word for song as their root. Admittedly, Swahili, like English, is not a virgin language, but rather a combination of a variety of languages making it useful for trading purposes. However, at the root it's still based on the Bantu languages of the peoples of Central and East Africa, which again is why it is so useful as a language of trade. A cursory examination of the root of these words gives us these common variations: imba, imbe and embe.

From the three variants listed above we get the following variations: marimba (Tanzania and Mozambique), malimbe (Nyamwezi of Tanzania), likimbe, likembe (Amba of Uganda and the Tabura of the Congo Basin|Congo), (lulimba Yao of Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique), lukembe (Alur and Acholi of Uganda), irimba and kajimba (Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique), itshilimba (Bemba of Zambia), karimba (Zimbabwe), kalimba and ikembe Bahutu of Rwanda and Burundi. There are many other names for these instruments, but the predominance of names with this root is undeniable. The spelling is not as important as the sound that is made in vocalizing the names.[1]

In general the further we get from Central and East Africa the more varied the nomenclature, until the most common form of the name appears to have Francophone roots or influence. Hence, we get balafon and Gyil for xylophones and prempensua, kongoma[2], gongoma [3], agidigbo[4] and ubo-aka[5] for mbira type instruments all over West Africa.

If an instrument is used for a particular dance or group of songs the instruments will take on the name of this dance or musical genre. Hence, we have ashiko, samba, kpanlogo, rada, petwo, gumbe and conga drums, each with their own particular dances, rhythms and songs.


  1. ^ "Swahili-English translation for "imba"". Retrieved 23 September 2012. 

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