The Mbira Instrument: How Google Doodles are amplifying the African voice

by  Toluwanimi Onakoya

If you’ve ever googled anything, you are most likely aware of the infamous Google doodle. Google is known for its creative and educational doodles; an alteration put in place of the typical Google logo image.

The platform draws focus to events, celebrations, historical artifacts, or a personality; displaying unique doodles on its homepage. There is a significant, intentional move on the part of Google in amplifying previously unheard voices; notably African stories.

This was put into focus on Thursday when Google unveiled its latest doodle of an African instrument, specifically from Zimbabwe- The Mbira Instrument.

The doodle showcased Africa and it’s music, introducing audience members to a brown piano-like instrument. The story, culture, and context of the Mbira instrument were told in a simple interactive animation. Many who had never even heard of the instrument were given the opportunity to play it from the comfort of their sofas via the doodle.

The Mbira instrument is educatively specified to be from the people of Shon in Zimbabwe. The instrument is made up of a row of metal strips, used as a sort of piano key. It is attached to an open-ended wooden gourd or hollow. It is also said that beads, bottle caps, and shells are attached to the instrument to give it a buzzing sound.

Upon clicking on the doodle, one is taken through an engaging, animated story introducing the instrument to the viewer. The five-phase story starts off with a little fascinated girl drawn to an elderly man playing the Mbira. She takes up interest as she grows and grows into a confident woman who plays the instrument in front of thousands of people. She then passes on the instrument to another child at the end of a story, showing a warming cycle.

At the end of each phase, audience members are given the option of trying their hands at the instrument by tapping on the keys shown on the screen in a game-like fashion.

Jonathan Schneier, the project concept lead and South African Doodler, in a Google blog post, points out the intentional highlighting of the culture and community spirit surrounding the instrument. The doodle was created in honour of Zimbabwe’s culture week. He stated that he wanted people to experience a “taste of a broad and deep cultural tradition that isn’t very well known outside its homeland” and he hoped that it “will open people’s curiosity to discover more about the instrument and that wonderful part of the world”. Much research was done to effectively represent the culture.

The team had gone exploring Zimbabwe and to a Zimbabwean school that gave them a wonderful performance and an unforgettable experience. The project put a modern twist on a traditional story by making the protagonist a woman, in a story of an instrument that was traditionally played by men. They did this to highlight the culture shift that was taking place in Zimbabwe.

In the same vein, Google had dedicated a doodle to one of our very own earlier this year, January. Google honoured Amaka Igwe on her  57th birthday. The veteran Nollywood filmmaker was recognized for her role in helping to begin the video film era of Nigeria cinema. She is responsible for producing and writing the award-winning TV soap, “Checkmate” and it’s offspring “Fuji House of Commotion.”

Google’s creative use of its doodles to give voice to African stories is commendable. It is a thing of pride to see Nigeria, and Africa represented in a way that’s respectful to the culture. With eagerness, one is always looking forward to what next they might have in store for us.

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