Rhymes with Chillin’ : The Irish Uilleann Pipes

Ben Jaber plays uilleann pipes at Mingei International Museum

How old were you when you first heard that bagpipes are from Scotland? That’s indeed what most Americans assume. But many other countries besides Scotland—Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria to name a few—have their own unique bagpipes, upon which they play their traditional music. My good pal Jonathan Parker has detailed some of this further in his excellent article on the säckpipa from Sweden.

Ireland’s native bagpipe, the uilleann pipe, holds the distinction of being the world’s most complicated bagpipe. Moreover, it is on everyone’s shortlist of the “most difficult instruments” to play. The uilleann pipes evolved out of the parlor instrument traditions of Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the times of the penal laws in Ireland, there was a need for a quieter, softer-toned instrument. Secular music and dance were forbidden, so the best way to promote such banned activity was to keep it behind closed doors.

The pipes’ methods of construction remain largely the same today as they were 200 years ago. Thankfully, the quality of new instruments being built is now at an all-time high.

All bagpipes have in common a chanter, the flute-like pipe upon which the melody is played with the fingers, and one or more drone pipes that play a single, sustained note to provide a rich harmonic foundation for the chanter melody. Uilleann pipes take the accompaniment further with the addition of regulators, a strange name for them because regulators don’t really regulate anything. They are stopped pipes with sprung keys that sound single notes when played with the heel of the wrist and fingers. The regulators can be used to great effect rhythmically in dance music as well as to sustain the drone tone in slower music, giving a full sound not unlike a pipe organ.

Components of the uillean pipe

As reed instruments, bagpipes use vibrating reeds of different types and materials to make sound. A full set of uilleann pipes uses no fewer than seven reeds, usually made from cane, to power the chanter. The drones and regulators also use reeds. The reeds are sounded by pressurized air stored in the pipe’s bag, from which—you guessed it—this class of instruments derives its name.

Most bagpipes are mouth-blown, their bags kept inflated by the musician’s lungs. However, there’s a sub-category of several types of softer-sounding bagpipes. (Among these, in my opinion, the uilleann pipes are clearly the best!) These maintain the pressure of the air in the bag not with the piper’s breath, but will a small bellows. They’re played seated with the chanter and drones positioned across the player’s lap. Air is pumped into the bag by a little bellows strapped around the waist and to the arm opposite the bag arm. (The bag and bellows can be set up on either side of the body depending on whether the player is left- or right-handed.)  The arms rock up and down, back and forth, squeezing and releasing the bag and bellows with the elbows, thus regulating the pressure on the reeds.

This is where the instrument gets its Irish name, uilleann, which is a form of the Irish Gaelic word uille, which means “elbow.” And yep, uilleann rhymes with chillin’. I know, it looks like it should be pronounced ooo-lee-ann, or you-lee-ann, or perhaps aeolian, but not so. Try saying chillin’ minus the ‘ch’. Ill, iller, illest! Uilleann! It’s a term that was ascribed to the instrument in the early 20th Century by the Irish author and musicologist Grattan Flood. Before that, these instruments were known simply as Irish pipes. Uilleann sounded way more exotic, so the name stuck.

Detail of set of uilleann pipes, c. 1940. Note the keys on the regulators. Photo: Terry Moylan, © NPU, 2013

Unlike the Scottish bagpipes, whose chanter plays nine notes, the uilleann pipes’ chanter can play two complete, 12-note chromatic octaves. This is achieved with keywork similar to that of other woodwinds of the time. The upper octave is obtained by overblowing the reed, as with an oboe or flute. The difference is that in this case, as we have seen, the airflow is controlled by the piper maintaining pressure on the bag and operating the bellows with their elbows. As one might imagine, getting seven reeds to tune and balance with the three drones and three regulators staying steady, all while the musician is playing up and down the chanter’s entire range, can be very, very tricky. Near impossible. Hence the whole “most difficult instrument” thing.

The instrument’s difficulties contributed to uilleann piping’s struggle to stay alive as an art form. It nearly faded to extinction multiple times throughout its history. As of 1970, the greatest pipemakers in Ireland were all dead and gone, and fewer than a hundred people in the world were still playing the instrument. In 1968, a group of Irish pipers joined forces to form the organization Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU, in English: “The Uilleann Pipers”) to revive the fortunes of the instrument. Through the efforts of the NPU and other enthusiasts, there’s been a dramatic reversal in the uilleann pipe’s fortunes. It must also be noted that the Internet has had a profound influence on the pipe’s survival through the passing of information (as in this article), as well as online instruction and recordings.

In 2017, UNESCO officially recognized uilleann piping as an element of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Now in 2024, I’m happy to report that more people than ever are playing the uilleann pipes in just about every corner of the globe. Some of the finest pipes ever built are being made in Sapporo, Japan, of all places!

Students graduate from a 3-year Na Piobairi Uilleann pipemaking course, 2015. Photo: Fennel Photography, © NPU 2015

From its humble beginnings, the uilleann pipes evolved into a sophisticated instrument worthy of the Irish bourgeoisie, with a court piper, as it were, in every house. Eventually, it climbed its way to the concert stages and recording studios of the world.

Piper Paddy Keenan in San Francisco, 1985

The awe-inspiring, hair-raising, soul-wrenching, mind-altering sound of the pipes is what attracted all of us who play it. A dear family friend of mine who played Scottish pipes and Irish pipes growing up introduced me to the classic recordings of the best Irish pipers at an early age. I’ll never forget hearing the first track of Paddy Keenan’s 1975 Brown Album. I hadn’t yet seen what pipes looked like, but then there was this magical drone sound that fired on, followed by the raw, wild, unbridled, soulful, forward motion of Paddy’s chanter playing. And then, there were chords! harmonies! Multiple voices! My young mind was blown, and I was hooked.

I started with the tin whistle, and eventually, as I listened to more of this music, I was drawn into playing the flute. With Paddy Keenan’s recordings also came the music of the Bothy Band and Planxty, which were luckily among my earliest influences. Though I never had any formal lessons, I consider myself fortunate in that regard because all my teachers, with whom I studied via their recordings, have been the best of the craft. They include Seamus Ennis, Liam O’Flynn, Willie Clancy, Tommy Reck, Mick O’Brien, Robbie Hannan, and Ronan Browne.

Benjamin Jaber is a talented multi-instrumentalist who has studied traditional Irish music since his early teens, being completely self-taught on the uilleann pipes, wooden flute, and tin whistle. He has made a name for himself as a sought-after performer and teacher in the field. Ben has played and conducted workshops at numerous Irish music festivals and camps, including the Lark In The Morning Camp, the North Texas Irish Festival, the Austin Celtic Festival, the EnnisTradFest, the Féile Parkfield in historic Parkfield, California, and the Willie Clancy Summer School in Milltown Malbay, Co. Clare, Ireland. In his day job, Ben is principal horn of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. He remains active in the recording studios of Los Angeles, having many film and TV projects to his credit.

The Indonesian Angklung: From Village Ritual to Soft Power Diplomacy

fig. 1: Indonesian Angklung

The angklung is a bamboo rattle from West Java, Indonesia. It is an example of an idiophone, an instrument that is struck, scraped, or—as in this case—shaken. Instruments similar to the angklung can be found throughout Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Ethnomusicologists date the use of the angklung in Indonesia to the seventh century CE.

The angklung is constructed by suspending two to four graduated bamboo tubes on a frame (see figure 1), which is shaken vigorously from left to right when the instrument is being played.

The instrument’s creation story points to its importance for agrarian rituals.

While scholars speculate that the rattling of bamboo stalks growing in the forest may have been the inspiration for the instrument, locals tell a legend of the rice goddess:

Desperate that the rice wasn’t growing, the people called upon their leader, who meditated and was instructed by spirit to cut bamboo and make an instrument. Upon hearing the beautiful sound of the bamboo angklung, the rice goddess, Dewi Sri, was pleased. The rice began to grow again.

In any event, a rich history of using the angklung for planting and harvesting ceremonies was established.

Angklung in procession, rice harvest ceremony, West Java | Photo: Onotrapokenifla [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Angklung continue to this day to be played for agrarian rituals and rites of passage. Anklung are also used in parades, at community centers, in Indonesian music education, and for cultural diplomacy initiatives.

Traditionally, angklung were tuned to tritonic (three-note) or tetratonic (four-note) scales. As the angklung has developed, it has been tuned in regional styles of the pentatonic five-tone salendro scale and the West Javanese (Sundanese) madenda and degung scales (both also 5-tone). Angklung are frequently played along with the Sundanese gamelan to accompany dance and puppet theater.

The most common modern angklung has two tubes and produces one pitch, with the longer tube being tuned an octave lower than the shorter tube. Some angklung have three or four tubes and are tuned to sound a chord.

fig. 2: Angklung on Rack

A collection of angklung can be hung on a rack and organized into rows so they can be played by one person (see figure 2). Alternatively, the instruments can be distributed among a group, one per player, in which case they are played in hocket or interlocking fashion, each musician contributing a single tone to the desired pattern or melody (as in a handbell ensemble).

When playing a single angklung, a musician suspends it between the index and middle fingers of the left hand and shakes the bottom of the frame from left to right with the right hand. In an ensemble, angklung is a great tool to introduce Indonesian music and folk songs while fostering group cohesion and cooperation. This is also why angklung has been used as a form of “soft power” cultural diplomacy.

While Indonesia was under Dutch colonial rule during the 1930s, the “father of the angklung,” Daeng Soetigna, experimented with tuning the angklung in Western diatonic and chromatic scales. Diatonic tuning enabled musicians to play Indonesian folk and national tunes, which led to an angklung revival and a widespread interest in the instrument in Indonesian schools and cultural centers.

Since then, angklung music and performance have spread across West Java and globally. This was in large part due to the educational initiatives of Daeng Soetigna’s student, Udjo Ngalagena, who in 1966 created the Saung Angklung Udjo (“Udjo’s House of Anklung“) performance and learning center in Padasuka, Bandung, West Java. Angklung was recognized as an official music education tool by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture on August 23, 1968, and was placed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

15,110 angklung players set Guinness World Record, Jakarta, 2023

Working with the Indonesian government and global embassies, the Saung Angklung Udjo center has coordinated colossal, world-record-breaking angklung events in which thousands of people play together by following cipher (number) notation and Kodály hand signals. These methods, coupled with the accessibility of the angklung, have made it an extremely effective instrument to teach Indonesian arts and culture to groups of children in the classroom or large groups of adults at diplomatic and community events.

Dr. Meghan Hynson is visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology in the Department of Music, University of San Diego. She is also a teaching artist in the CWM’s World Music in the Schools program. For an expanded treatment of this topic, see Dr. Hynson’s Smithsonian article, cited and linked below.

For Further Reading

Hynson, Meghan. 2015. “Indonesian Angklung: Intersections of Music Education and Cultural Diplomacy” in Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art Online. https://asia-archive.si.edu/essays/article-hynson/

Baier, Randal. 1985/86. “The Angklung Ensemble of West Java: Continuity of an Agricultural Tradition.” Balungan 2(1–2): 9–17.

Perris, Arnold. 1971. “The Rebirth of the Javanese Angklung.” Ethnomusicology 15(3): 403–407.

The Persian Tar

The word tar, in Persian, means “string.” This word can be found in the names of many of the instruments that musicologists class as chordophones, including setar (“3 strings”), dotar (“2 strings”), ektara (“1 string”), and of course, guitar.

Mohammad Resa Lofti plays the Persian tar

Mohammad Resa Lofti plays the Persian tar

The stringed tar of Iran and Azerbaijan—not to be confused with the North African drum of the same name—is a plucked instrument with 3 double courses of strings, giving a hint to its origin, the 3-string setar mentioned above. While the setar traveled to North India eight centuries ago, eventually developing into the sitar, the tar was adapted from the setar in Iran only three centuries ago. The North Indian sitar and the Iranian tar are both larger and louder than the setar.

The body of the tar has a double bowl carved from a block of mulberry wood, with a thin skin membrane attached as the soundboard. When it is played with the traditional brass plectrum called mezrab, it produces a full, round, yet clearly articulated tone. It can be played as a solo instrument, in an ensemble, or to accompany a singer. As in many music cultures, the instrument’s sound and articulation mimic the vocal singing style, so the tar is played to sound like Persian singing, which employs a distinctive technique of melodic and rhythmic embellishment known as tahrir.

Ramiz Guliyev plays the Azeri tar

Ramiz Guliyev plays the Azeri tar

In an ensemble, the tar is often played along with the kamancheh, a bowed fiddle that also features a skin soundboard, and the tombak, a goblet-shaped drum. The frets of the tar are made of gut tied on the neck so as to be movable. This allows players to make small adjustments that might be necessary to play in different maqams, or scales.

The Iranian tar thus continues to be fretted like a setar and tuned according to the traditional system of the greater Middle East. During the Soviet rule of Azerbaijan in the 20th century, on the other hand, Azeri music and the Azeri tar adopted the Western equal temperament (piano-like) tuning system.

Instruments of the Central Javanese Gamelan: Peking

This is the second in a series of articles exploring the various instruments of the Javanese gamelan.

The peking is one instrument in a family group called balungan instruments. In the Javanese gamelan ensemble, these instruments all utilize similar performance techniques and play the balungan, or melodic line, in unison or with slight embellishments. Within this larger balungan family, there is a sub-group of instruments: the saron family. These three instruments—the peking, the saron, and the demung—together cover a range of three octaves, from high to low. The peking, also referred to as the saron panerus, covers the highest range in this family. The saron represents the middle of the range, and the demung renders the lowest part of the range. The latter is also referred to as saron barung.

Top view of the demung, saron, and peking, each with its mallet

Like the other instruments in this family, the peking is a struck metallophone made from bronze keys suspended over a hollow, ornately decorated wooden box, which serves both to support the keys and as a resonator. A peking has 7 keys in both the sléndro (5 note scale, with an additional note above and below the octave) and pélog (7 note scale) tunings. A small ensemble might only have two peking, one in each scale, and likewise two saron and two demung, one in each scale, whereas a larger ensemble might have as many as eight peking, four in each scale.

Peking are struck with a small mallet made of water buffalo horn, which produces a loud and bright sound. This, along with their high pitch, allows their sound to rise above that of the other instruments in the ensemble to be heard clearly by the other players and the audience. However, when required, peking are also capable of producing tones with a soft and dynamic sensibility. The bronze keys resonate freely and have a long decay. Because of this, when the mallet strikes one key, the player’s other hand grasps the key previously struck so it doesn’t continue to sound. This allows notes to sustain freely for a short time until the following note is played. A similar “damping” technique is used with other members of this family of instruments.

The peking players are seated near the ensemble’s director, who signals tempo changes and gives other cues to the musicians via the kendang (drum). Because they can thus see and hear the drummer’s signals more readily, and also because the sound of the peking can be heard clearly by the other players, the peking players have a special role: to reinforce the signals from the drummer, serving as a bridge between the drummer and the rest of the saron and other balungan instruments.

Instruments of the Javanese Gamelan Series List

Instruments of the Central Javanese Gamelan: An Introduction

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the various instruments of the Javanese gamelan. We start off with an overview of this fascinating topic.

If you were to travel to the islands of Java or Bali, you would very likely encounter the music of the gamelan, an ensemble of traditional instruments for which Indonesia is famous. There are numerous types of gamelan ensembles found across this diverse archipelago. Each has its own instrumentation, associated musical style, tuning, and cultural context. The Javanese gamelan tradition was cultivated in the palaces of Central Java as early as the second century CE. Because of its historical connection to the royal courts and their patronage, the music has developed into a highly refined art form and, like the classical music of Europe, has come to carry great cultural prestige.

The instruments of the Javanese gamelan ensemble at Canyon Crest Academy, San Diego. Photo by Laurel Grinnell-Wilson.

Most of the instruments of the gamelan are struck idiophones, a class of instruments that produce sound when the primary material of the instrument itself vibrates. They are made of hand-forged bronze, suspended on wooden frames. The gamelan ensemble can also include drums, stringed instruments, and wooden xylophones. All pieces of the ensemble are ornately decorated with hand-carved designs and shimmering gold paint.

The instruments of the gamelan can be divided into three families: balungan instruments, punctuating instruments, and elaborating instruments.

The balungan instruments—the saron, the demung, the peking, and the slenthem—carry the melodic lines. For these, players strike the instrument’s bronze bars with a mallet while dampening with their other hand to control the length of each note. Balungan in Indonesian means “skeleton,” which reveals a powerful perspective on how Indonesians perceive melody. A skeleton holds our body’s structure but is not seen from the outside. Similarly, a balungan melody should be strong but subtle. As with our bones, it should not be prominent. 

The ornately carved gong stand at the Kraton Yogyakarta (Royal Palace of Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia). Photo by Laurel Grinnell-Wilson.

Unlike Western art music, which tends to be linear, gamelan music is cyclical, or colotomic. Colotomic time cycles are marked by the second family of instruments, the punctuating instruments. Most important in this family, and in the ensemble as a whole, is the largest gong, the gong ageng. It marks the beginning/ending of each cycle and is thought to hold the spirit of the gamelan, reflecting the strong mysticism that Javanese people still hold today. The gong ageng and the kempul, which are smaller gongs, are hung from wooden frames and struck in the center with a padded mallet.

The kenong, kethuk, and kempyang are sets of inverted pots that are supported by rope in wooden frames. All three instruments are played by one musician, who uses two mallets, one in each hand. The kendang, or drum, punctuates the time cycles and is considered the leader of the ensemble. Much like a conductor in a western orchestra, the kendang player navigates the musicians through tempo changes, starts and stops, and accentuates other collaborative art forms such as tari (dance) and wayang kulit (shadow puppets). All of the punctuating instruments help in marking time in the gong cycle.

The third family, the elaborating instruments, help add shape and movement to a piece, as well as anticipate where the balungan line is headed next. In so doing, these instruments—each following its own special rules of elaboration—play what is known as an “inner melody” to the balungan line. There are many elaborating instruments in the Javanese gamelan ensemble, including a two-string bowed fiddle called a rebab, a zither called a siter, a wooden xylophone called a gambang, a bronze metallophone called a gendèr, and a row of small bronze pots suspended over a wooden frame called a bonang. Vocalists are also included in this group. Each elaborating instrument follows its own special rules of ornamentation.

Central Javanese gamelan music uses two scales: pelog, which consists of seven notes, and slendro, which has five. The two scales are performed on separate sets of instruments, and gamelan ensembles may have one or both sets. There is no strictly prescribed tuning for either scale. The concept of laras, or how the scale should sound, was historically both subjective and protected, a choice based on aesthetic differences from village to village. This means that different gamelans using the “same” scale might have distinct root pitches, and the intervals between any two notes in the scale might vary, minutely or substantially, creating subtle differences in the mood or feeling of the music.

As in other elite musical traditions, the various instruments of the Central Javanese gamelan embody fascinating differences in construction, timbre, and performance methods. Learn more about the individual instruments as we add profiles of each in this ongoing series.

Instruments of the Javanese Gamelan Series List

The Dan Trahn and Vietnamese History

Vietnamese history, culture, and values live within the form and function of the dan tranh, a wooden zither with sixteen strings. Its musical traditions reflect the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Vietnam, reflecting Vietnam’s relationship with China and its cultural values.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

Structure and Symbolism

The dan tranh has a curved top plate and a flat bottom plate with a sound hole. Together, they represent the ancient Vietnamese concept of the curved heavens and flat earth in harmony. Some scholars believe this symbolic shape migrated from China during one of its occupations of Vietnam, citing Confucian influence and similarities to the Chinese instrument called the zheng. Others believe this interpretation is a part of a broader tendency for Confucian scholars in Vietnam to attribute Vietnamese innovations to their northern neighbors.


Each string passes over a fixed bridge as well as a moveable bridge that players can position to tune the string. While playing, instrumentalists use their left hand to control the tension of the strings, often to create smooth pitch bends, and they pluck the strings with their right hand. Some players use their fingernails, but others choose to wear picks, typically made of ivory, hawksbill, turtle shell, plastic, brass, or steel.

Origins and Traditions

Archaeological evidence points to the first ancestor of the dan tranh being an instrument found in Van Phuc pagoda, dating to 1057. In the late middle ages, the dan tranh made its way into court music ensembles and was featured at royal banquets, theaters, dance performances, and other forms of entertainment. In the mid-sixteenth century, when Vietnam split into two political factions—the northern Trinh Lords and the southern Nguyen Lords—conventions of court music split with them into two traditions: hat cua quyen in the north and teh nhac Hue in the south.

Dan tranh also played a notable role in folk music, appearing in the phuong bat am (ensemble with eight sounds) for religious rituals, funerals, and other ceremonies. Music as a profession was widely frowned upon in Vietnam until the twentieth century, so there were very few professional dan tranh players. Most performers were tradesmen or nobles who did not need to work for money. Music was typically considered an expression of personal emotion. For this reason, performances tended towards intimate gatherings and small crowds instead of large concerts.

Confucianism and Nationalism

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the dan tranh became a symbol of a broader nationalistic reaction to French imperialism. The Nguyen Dynasty adopted an anti-western cultural agenda that included the expansion in Vietnam of Confucian influence, which had previously been frowned upon. For the dan tranh, this manifested in many forms. Confucian stories, including Chinese symbolism and fables, found a place in the instruments’ aesthetics. Additionally, the Chinese Confucians held instrumentalists in high esteem, considering music as a means for ethical and scholarly growth. The Vietnamese adopted this attitude. The Confucian view of music as a part of nature also became prominent, for example, the idea that the five main tones of music symbolize the five elements: water, metal, wood, fire, and earth. Although the dan tranh had historically been favored by female musicians, the number of well-known female dan tranh players significantly declined due to Confucian sexism. This standard began to change in the late 20th century when Vietnam abandoned many Confucian ideas during its modernization efforts.

Source: Le, Tuan Hung. 1998. Đàn Tranh Music of Vietnam: Traditions and Innovations. Melbourne: Australia Asia Foundation.

This instrument profile was contributed by CWM Volunteer Evan Ludington and reviewed by Dr. Timothy Rice. Source document provided by Dr. Alexander M. Cannon.

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This project is made possible with support from the California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

The Maguindanaoan Kulintang of the Southern Philippines

A Maguindanaoan kulintang ensemble is a gong-chime collection of instruments important to the musical culture of the Maguindanao people in the Southern Philippines. Kulintang music is used for celebratory occasions such as festivals, weddings, engagement parties, and baptisms, as well as in musical competitions. Certain musical families in the province of Maguindanao specialize in this art form, passing down the tradition from generation to generation, and everyone interested in learning is welcome. Children typically learn through osmosis by observing their elders play at festive occasions. Each kulintang song is family-specific and region-specific, and well-versed musicians can distinguish between regional and family styles of playing.

Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble | Photograph by Ernie Pena

The entire ensemble consists of five percussion instruments played by five musicians at a time.

Kulintang | Photo by Kingsley Ramos

The main melodic instrument, called the kulintang, consists of eight knobbed bronze gongs that are graduated in pitch. It sits on a wooden stand called an antangan. Each gong is supported by thin cords attached to the antangan, to allow the sound to resonate.

Dabakan | Photo by Kingsley Ramos

The second instrument of the ensemble is the dabakan, a gourd-shaped drum that provides the rhythm to the ensemble. It is typically made from the stump of a palm tree, and the drum head is traditionally fashioned from monitor lizard skin (or sometimes snakeskin). Due to the endangered status of monitor lizards in the Philippines, goatskin is now widely used.

Babandil | Photo by Philip Dominguez Mercurio

The third instrument is the babandil (also commonly spelled as babandir), the ensemble's timekeeper. It is a medium-sized knobbed gong. The rim of the babandil is tapped with a striker to create the sound.

Gandingan | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The fourth instrument of the ensemble is the gandingan, composed of four hanging gongs also known as the “talking gongs.” Musicians often used the gandingan to send messages, typically romantic, to other players in the ensemble or across distances.

Agung | Photo by Kingsley Ramos

The last instrument of the ensemble is the agung (or agong). These are two very large gongs that provide the bass register to the ensemble.

It is a misconception that kulintang music is Islamic. Islam became the primary religion of the island of Mindanao and the province of Maguindanao in the 14th century, primarily as a result of trade between Muslim Indians, Malaysia, and Mindanao. However, before this time the Maguindanao used kulintang music in healing ceremonies and other pre-Islamic animist rituals.

There are other Filipino ethnolinguistic groups in the Southern Philippines that have their own distinct kulintang traditions. These include the Maranao, Blaan, Tboli, Manobo, Bogobo, Sama, and Tausug. The Indonesian and Malaysian gamelan are related to the kulintang ensemble.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

Unique to the Maguindanao is the use of kulintang music for courtship and in contests between individual musicians or village ensembles. On the gandingan, suitors send their love interests sweet messages through apad, tones that mimic human speech in the poetic language of Maguindanao. Messages may also be sent on the kulintang and agong. This method allows courting without public displays of affection, which is frowned upon in Muslim society.

Gong instrument competition is a modern concept popular with younger musicians. Held during weddings and festivals, such contests occur between individual musicians and/or ensembles, representing different villages. The kulintang, gandingan, and agong are all used in these competitions as musicians attempt to show their virtuosity and skills on each instrument. The winners are determined by who receives the loudest applause from the audience.

Enjoy this video of Magui Moro Master Artists.

Learn more about The Traditional Music and Dance of the Maguindanaoan People in this discussion and video presentation.

— Contributed by Kimberly Kalanduyan, granddaughter of Maguindanao master artist Danongan Kalanduyan.

For more on Kimberly, her mentor Bernard Ellorin, and Kulintang music visit A Journey Home: Kulintang Music from San Diego to Mindanao, an Alliance for California Traditional Arts funded project.


California Humanities Logo

This project is made possible with support from the California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

The Voice in South Indian Classical Music

The voice in South Indian classical music (also known as Carnatic music) is versatile and expressive. Decades of training are required to meet the demands of the tradition, including the ability to sing at least three octaves (the typical opera singer has about a two-octave range). Professional singers typically learn hundreds of compositions in six languages (Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi) and in a variety of musical forms, including bhajan, slokam, varnam, keerthanam, kriti, padam, javali, ragamalika, ragam-thanum-pallavi, and thillana. Each of these forms has its own musical structure with some requiring improvisation. Whereas Western music employs two main melodic modes (major and minor) on 12 pitch centers, Carnatic vocalists typically learn dozens of ragas (a group of five, six, or seven pitches that go together as a set), which they perform on a single pitch center.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 


Similar to the way Western classical music singers learn scales using the solfege syllables Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do, South Indian classical vocalists use a system of syllables called sargam: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. The three-octave range is notated with dots below (lower octave) and dots above (higher octave) as follows:

Carnatic system of syllables

Tanjore Tambura

There is no system of fixed pitches in South Indian music, so each singer chooses his or her own central pitch (Sa), one that will allow their voice to cover three octaves. They typically use this pitch for their entire careers. During a performance, that chosen pitch is sustained as a drone on a tambura (plucked string instrument) or, in the modern era, on a sruti box (a bellows-blown reed instrument, now often electronic). All learning is done traditionally by ear and by memory as repertoire and style are transmitted from guru to disciple. Instruction may involve daily lessons and practice for an intensive period of ten to twenty years before reaching a professional level. Even then, study typically continues over a vocalist’s entire lifetime.

Concert performances in South India can take three to five hours with a vocalist presenting several types of compositions all from memory with little or no rehearsal with the accompanying musicians, who typically include a percussionist and a melodic accompanist who follows and echoes the vocalist’s lead. About three-quarters of the way through a concert, a main piece, lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour, will be performed to showcase the improvisational abilities of the vocalist and accompanying musicians. The vocalist’s improvisation can involve singing many musical pitches on a single syllable, singing in three octaves or more with the sargam syllables, or choosing on the spot a portion of the song’s lyrics and melody and varying those. Carnatic vocalists have a distinctive virtuosity that both marks their musical identity as South Indian and contributes to the great diversity of traditional musical cultures in the world.

See the renowned 20th century artist M.S. Subbulaksmi performing Jagadodharana (“Supporter of the Universe”), a composition by Purandaradasa (16th c.) and Pakkala Nilabadi (“Standing by the Side [of Lord Rama]”), a composition by Tyagaraja (18th–19th c.).

K. S. Resmi is a performer and teacher of Carnatic music. N. Scott Robinson, Ph.D., percussionist and ethnomusicologist, is chair of the Music Department at San Diego Mesa College.

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This project is made possible with support from the California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

Image of Violin

The Huastecan Violin Style of Northwestern Mexico

Violin performance techniques and style found in son huasteco, a traditional musical style originating in Northeastern Mexico (also known as huapango), are unlike any that exists. The Huastecan violin differs only in style and technique from the ever-popular classical violin. However, paired with a huapanguera, eight-string bass guitar-like instrument, and jarana huasteca, a small five-string rhythm guitar, the violin found in the son huasteco tradition is arguably one of the most interesting and unique styles of violin performance.

The son huasteco is a form of traditional Mexican music that takes its name from the Huaxtec/Huastec indigenous group that inhabits the northeastern area of present-day Mexico. The word “son” in son huasteco, is used to describe the amalgamation of Spanish, indigenous Mexican, African, and other music styles and influences that evolved after the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, and during the colonial period of Mexico from 1521-1810.


Left to Right: jarana, violin, huapanguera (8-string)

What makes the son huasteco violin different from other Mexican son styles? It is an interesting question that involves a complicated answer. To put it simply, however, style, including note emphasis, and timing are what set apart this violin performance style from any other. Most sones (songs) from the huastecan region are in 6/8 meter (best described as repetitive counting from 1-6, similar to West African styles of music which highly influence eastern Mexican music genres). What makes the huastecan violin style of performance different from most others is the ability of the violinist to play with the timing during the improvisation of musical interludes. In other words, a violinist will drag the timing and drag the notes, and also rush the timing and the notes as they weave in and out of the rhythm set by the huapanguera and jarana huasteca in a sort of musical game that might throw some listeners off.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

The question is often asked, who is the greatest huastecan violinist of all time? Although I have my favorites, it is truly an unfair question due to the fact that what makes a son huasteco trio great is not the solo violin, or the abilities of the jarana and huapanguera; rather it is the entirety of the trio and how well they blend together and anticipate each other’s improvisatory flairs. Some of the all-time great trios include Camperos de Valles, Cantores de Pánuco, Trio Camalote, Hermanos Calderón, and Trio Armonía Huasteca, to name a few. Each of these trios comes from a different part of the northeastern region of Mexico. They all have unique styles based on their surroundings and the previous musicians whom they learned from.

The huastecan violin floats above the fixed pulsating rhythm provided by the jarana and huapanguera in a distinctive unpredictable flight pattern that will surely capture the attention of any listener.

Below are two examples of son huasteco performed by trio Eliodoro Copado of Camperos de Valles, and Juan Coronel of Cantores de la Huasteca.

Camperos de Valles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzPTVdOBfQc

Cantores de la Huasteca: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnhUbtzgEHc


Learn more about the author, Jorge Andres Herrera, and his family band, Hermanos Herrera.

Contact Info:
Twitter / Instagram: @hermanosherrera

Sonbros Records
(805) 794-1800

California Humanities Logo

This project is made possible with support from the California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

36 String Kantele

The Finnish Kantele: A Soulful and Humble Instrument

Sing the song of Kantele!

The kantele belongs to a large family of string instruments called zithers. Zithers have a resonating body with a variable number of strings, which can be plucked, strummed, struck, or bowed. In the case of the kantele, the strings are plucked or strummed and the smallest kanteles can be held in the player’s lap. The kantele is the national instrument of Finland. Finnish folk poetry recounts that the first kantele was made from the jaw bones of fish and the hair of young maidens. When the first kantele was played, the sound was so beautiful that all living things started to cry. Their tears rolled into the ocean, and when they touched the sea they turned into beautiful blue pearls.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

There are kanteles of many sizes: 5-string, 10-string, 11-string, all the way up to the 36-string concert kantele, as seen above.

My favorite instrument is the 5-string kantele. It is a very soulful and humble instrument. It teaches you to quiet your mind and allow the kantele to sing its stories–stories of hard winters and beautiful summer nights, stories of a resilient northern nation who fought hard for its independence.


You play the 5-string kantele by plucking the strings to create melodies. You can also strum chords by muting the strings that don’t belong to the chord. The strings of this small kantele are tuned to the first five pitches of the major or minor scale.

Larin Paraske, one of the great rune singers of Finland

Larin Paraske, one of the great rune singers of Finland.

The 5-string kantele is often taught in Finnish schools as the first instrument for young children. It encourages creativity, as it is easy to learn improvisation with this instrument. Children find the kantele fun because they experience the joy of playing together as a group. You do not have to be a Finn to appreciate and learn kantele.

Merja with her daughter and two other children

Merja, with her daughter, and two children.

I am a first-generation Finnish immigrant now living in the US, and for me, the kantele and Finnish music are the bridge that connects the two distant worlds.

2016 Christmas Revels – Northlands

2016 Christmas Revels – Northlands

When I close my eyes and let my fingers move across the strings of the kantele, I remember—I remember the Finnish spirit that is in me. The spirit that says keep going and never give up. All the while, singing the song of life through all the difficulties. Sing the song of the kantele!

Learn more about Merja at merjasoria.com. View a “vintage video” of Merja performing on a 10-string kantele soon after her arrival in the United States.

Merja Soria is a performer and teacher of Finnish folk music and a Center for World Music teaching artist.