Thumbs up!

Part of the MIM sanza exhibit

It’s “thumbs up!” at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, where 200 sanzas, better known as thumb pianos, will be exhibited Feb. 25-Oct. 1.

Families who visit the museum’s Target Galley will see sanzas from the MIM’s own collection and a museum in Central Africa. But most hail from a private Belgian collection spotted a year or so ago by a MIM board member and funder during travels abroad.

Manuel Jordán, chief curator and director of collections at MIM, says that in a museum filled with diverse instruments from across the globe, it’s nice to add an experience that “focuses on one specific instrument and all its ramifications” — from how it’s created and built to how it’s played and used in various cultures.

Sanzas are created in different sizes and feature designs ranging from simple to elaborate. “When you see them in person,” reflects Jordán, “it’s almost like each one has a personality.” Like people, they’re all different and unique. “You can’t help but have favorites,” says Jordán — though he’s reticent to pick just one or two. Seems he’s fallen in love with “a good twenty to twenty five of them.”

Sanza featured in an upcoming MIM exhibit

When our children were younger, we often bought sanzas and other small instruments when visiting museum gift shops, and they’re still living in a basket our kids used to haul out for playdates. The thumb pianos were always a hit because they’re so easy to play and carry from place to place.

“There’s a certain simplicity to the instrument,” says Jordán. “You don’t need lessons to play one.” Folks who pay for general admission to the MIM are free to explore the sanza exhibit — plus play various instruments, including sanzas, inside the MIM Experience Gallery.

Jordán recalls seeing his first sanza during a two-year stint in Africa. Three children were carrying the instrument, which had been crafted of wood and branches pulled down from a banana tree. Jordán notes that sanza is “the music that accompanies storytelling in African villages.”

Seems the sanza has plenty of fans — including groups like Genesis and Earth, Wind and Fire. It’s the only musical instrument you’ll hear behind the vocals of Canadian Laura Barrett, according to Jordán. Angolan musician Victor Gama “has experimented with thumb pianos with a futurist tilt.” Jordán notes that many “look like things out of another planet.”

Part of the MIM sanza exhibit

Jordán adds that renowned American banjo player Béla Fleck uses them too, as does Tanzania musician Anania Ngoliga. “Lots of world music uses it,” shares Jordán, along with lots of other percussion instruments.

Because of Africa’s interaction with other parts of the world, says Jordán, you can find the sanza in many cultures. Jordán says folks who find sanzas in the museum’s Africa exhibits will find them in Latin American exhibits too.

Those who wonder how they got there can follow the path of music through history to learn about the slave trade and ways African culture has merged with other cultures over time.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to explore MIM offerings and learn more about the sanza exhibit.

Coming up: Art meets television

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