Chopi Timbila

The Chopi communities live mainly in the southern part of Inhambane province in southern Mozambique and are famous for their orchestra music. Their orchestras consist of five to thirty wooden xylophones called Timbila of varying sizes and ranges of pitch. The timbila are finely manufactured and tuned wooden instruments, which are made from the highly resonant wood of the slow-growing mwenje (sneezewort) tree. Under each wooden slat, a resonant made out of kalebashes is fastened, tightly sealed with bees wax and tempered with oilof the nkuso fruits, giving the Timbila their rich nasalizing sound and typical vibrations. 


The music played by the Timbila orchestras known is composed by various Timbila masters and transmitted by practice to the next generation of musicians. Each year, several new pieces are composed and performed at social festivities, such as weddings and community events. Timbila is performed by all age groups, with school children playing next to their grandfathers. Performances last about an hour and are divided into solo and orchestra themes and use varying tempi. Closely connected with the music are particular Timbila dances that are performed by two to twelve dancers in front of the orchestra. The rhythms within each theme are complex, so that the player’s left hand is often executing a different rhythm than the right hand.

Each timbilaperformance consists of an m’zeno, the great and solemn song, in which the musicians play softly and slowly, while the dancers sing a poem or a sung speech. These poems, full of humour and sarcasm, reflect contemporary social issues and serve to chronicle community events.

Many experienced timbila performers are very advanced in age. Although several timbila masters have started to train young musicians and included also girls in their orchestras and dance groups, young people are increasingly losing contact with this cultural heritage. Deforestation of the mwenje tree has led to the scarcity of the wood that is needed to produce the particular sonority of the Timbila instruments.