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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.

 

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.

Playing

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.

percussion instruments on wooden rack

Kulintang | Photography 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.
musician and drum

Dabakan | Photography 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 | Philip Dominguez Mercurio (PhilipDM) Wikimedia Commons

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.
Hanging gongs

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.
Two musicians with hanging kettle bells

Agung | Photography 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 for animist rituals to appease malignant spirits. 

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.

instruments

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:
www.hermanosherrera.com
www.youtube.com/hermanosherrera
Twitter / Instagram: @hermanosherrera

Sonbros Records
sonbros@sbcglobal.net
(805) 794-1800

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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.

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.

Bodhran

The Bodhrán: Ancient Sound of Irish Percussion

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.


When I was a young lad in Cork, Ireland the bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn, like cow brawn) was commonly considered as the “ancient sound of Irish percussion.”  Indeed, we are told that the bodhrán was used to summon the fairies from their magic fort on full-moon nights. Many novice players could not understand why this profound sound of the past was not widely featured in traditional Irish music sessions across the world. After all, they would say, isn’t this “the Irish drum”? Little did we know that the opposite was the case. While teaching bodhrán in upstate New York at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, I sat in on an eye-opening lecture by Fintan Vallely entitled “Hunting for Borr-án: Shaking a Stick at the Origin Myths Concerning the Irish Drum.” My world as a bodhrán player was completely dismantled.


Through long research, Fintan had found that the bodhrán has been a part of Irish music for only the last 200 years, if that. Its use was not widespread and was generally reserved for only the wildest of parties. As Fintan puts it in his notes on the talk:

“. . . what is the history of the bodhrán? What we know so far is driven by myth and wishful thinking. . . . the famous Irish drum has no ancient artistic past: at the best it was only ever just a tambourine. The Irish device, from which the word ‘bodhrán’ comes, most likely originally meant an agricultural and domestic tray or container — even a sieve. Yet the bodhrán IS around, and being brilliantly played, as solid an art and presence as the harp or the pipes. We borrowed the device from [minstrel shows] or the Salvation Army, the rhythms from dancers’ feet, and we synthesised the modern playing style from the sounds of Ulster Lambeggers, Indian tabla tippers and Scottish pipe-band snare drummers.”

Today the bodhrán is a rapidly-developing Irish drum, in both its design and its playing style. It was brought from its humble origins in rural celebrations to public attention in concert halls and theaters by Seán Ó Riada and Peadar Mercier in the 1960s, and featured prominently in the ensembles Ceoltóirí Chualann and the Chieftains. From there it has exploded across the globe and become a mainstay at many Irish music sessions and home fireplaces. Johnny “Ringo” McDonogh is noted as the first player to damp the sound with one hand on the back of the instrument, and many others have further developed this style of two-hand playing. In addition, tunable bodhráns have improved the tone more concretely, and turned the humble farm utensil into a sophisticated musical instrument.

At the age of 19, I stumbled into the Douglas, County Cork branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote Irish traditional performing arts. It was there that a tiny 6-inch bodhrán with a hole in it was thrust into my hands, and I was steered into a bodhrán class with teacher Eric Cunningham. The rest is history. Today, I play a 14-inch Metloef bodhrán, although many instruments of old were 18 to 20 inches in diameter. According to Fintan’s research, those larger sizes were prevalent because old spinning wheels were used as the rim of the instrument. Personally, I find the larger diameters too cumbersome, although other players still prefer them. Two pieces of wood in the shape of a cross, placed within the back-side frame are common in the larger drums, but I feel that they are a hindrance to playing the smaller instruments that I prefer.

In the past, the performer’s bare hand was most commonly used to beat the drum, as demonstrated by the great Rónán Ó Snodaigh. Nowadays, however, a stick called a cípín is typically used. Ideally, the cípín matches the length of the player’s hand, from outstretched thumb to outstretched baby finger, as this is about as much weight as any one’s wrist can withstand for extended playing. When both ends of the cípín are used, this is known as the “Kerry” style of bodhrán playing. A different style, known as “top end,” uses only one end of the stick and is characterized by a heavy emphasis on upstrokes of the cípín. 

Videos of the bodhrán:
The Gallant Fusiliers by Máirtín de Cógáin
Bodhran jigs – Karl Nesbitt & Tommie Cunniffe
www.MairtinMusic.com

Máirtín de Cógáin is an actor, singer, percussionist, storyteller, playwright, dancer, and teaching artist for the Center for World Music.

Didgeridoo

The Didjeridu of Australia

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 didjeridu (or didgeridoo) is a deceptively simple instrument in construction. Nevertheless, it can produce extremely complex music in the hands of an expert player. It is simply a tube with no reed, finger holes or moving parts of any kind. The player creates rhythm and shifts of timbre and pitch with movement of the breath, lips, tongue, cheeks, throat, vocal cords, and stomach muscles. “Circular breathing” is employed to produce continuous sound, whether a simple drone or an intricate rhythm.

 

A rough map of the origins of the didjeridu.

Aboriginal people of northern Australia invented the instrument and still use it in ceremonial and daily life today. Didjeridu is not in fact an Aboriginal term, but an onomatopoeic word created by European settlers describing the sound produced by traditional players. There are many words for the instrument in Aboriginal languages. The best known around the world are yidaki from northeast Arnhem Land and mago from west Arnhem Land. In both regions, it is also common to hear the word bambu used. Bamboo was occasionally in use at the time of European contact, but has now fallen out of favor with Aboriginal players.

Djalu Gurruwiwi begins chopping down a stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta) to craft a didjeridu.

These days, people around the world make didjeridus out of a wide variety of materials. Traditionally, however, instruments are made from trunks of eucalyptus trees that have been hollowed out by termites commonly known as “white ants.” A craftsman scans a forest for likely instruments, then taps a tree up and down to evaluate the hollow inside. If it sounds good, the tree is felled, cut to length, stripped of its bark and carved down to match the interior hollow.

If the natural hollow of the wood at the top is too big or irregularly shaped, a material found in bee nests called “sugarbag” is formed into a mouthpiece. Sugarbag is a black, gummy substance native Australian bees make by mixing their wax with eucalyptus tree resin, not the yellow wax of European bees that is often seen on instruments made for the tourist market. Instruments made for sale or special ceremonies may be elaborately decorated with clan designs related to the artist, but most didgeridoos in everyday use in northern Australia are unpainted or wrapped top to bottom in duct or electrical tape to hold them together through inevitable cracking as the wood dries.

Milkay Mununggurr accompanies ceremonial song with a didjeridu completely wrapped in tape.

Traditional Aboriginal players continue to use age-old tonguing techniques that stem from their language and are foreign to most outsiders. As the instrument has spread globally, many more styles have developed around the world, from new age drones to beatboxing, in both solo and ensemble settings.

Witiyana Marika and Milkayngu Mununggurr of Yothu Yindi perform a
traditional Yolngu song with didjeridu

Randin Graves plays contemporary didjeridu music with guitar

— Randin Graves is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and one of the world’s leading non-Aboriginal exponents of the Australian didjeridu.

For more information on the didjeridu at its origin, visit YidakiStory.com, which Randin created in collaboration with many Yolngu Aboriginal people as part of his Fulbright Fellowship and Master’s Degree project.

Thai Jakhee

The Southeast Asian Jakhee

The jakhee (จะเข้) is a plucked string instrument with three strings and eleven wooden frets, found in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The name is derived from the Thai word for crocodile, jaurakhee, because the body of the instrument is shaped like a crocodile, and it is sometimes elaborately carved to represent one. The body is made from wood, often from the jackfruit tree, carved out of one piece and covered with a flat lid on the bottom which has sound holes and five short legs.

Crocodile Jakhee

To play the jakhee, the player tightly ties a large pick to their right index finger. The right hand rests against the body of the instrument and the hand rocks back-and-forth over the strings in an arc-shaped motion, plucking strings individually or strumming across all three. The pick is often made from hardwood, bone, ivory or ceramic. The instrument itself can be decorated in elaborate patterns with gold paint, mother-of-pearl, lighter colored wood trim, bone, white resin or ivory. It has two silk or nylon strings, tuned to Do and Sol, and one metal string tuned to Do an octave lower, and they are strung over a curved bridge that gives the instruments a buzzing timbre, similar the javari bridge on Indian instruments such as the sitar.

jakhee-supeena

Supeena Insee Adler playing jakhee

Traditionally, a player sits with legs folded back to one side on the floor behind the instrument, but today it is common for the instrument to be elevated so the player may sit on a chair. The jakhee is often played as a solo instrument, but it is also found in classical ensembles, including the khrueang sai (stringed instruments) and mohoorii ensembles.

The stringed ensemble consists of one jakhee, one sau duang (two-stringed hardwood fiddle with python skin), one sau uu (two stringed fiddle with coconut shell body covered with cow skin), one khlui (wooden vertical flute), thoon-rammanna (a set of two drums), and ching (cymbals). It originated in the royal palace and is often used in entertainment settings, at schools, universities, communities, and temple festivals, and funerals.

The khrueangsai pii chawaa ensemble

The khrueangsai pii chawaa ensemble

Another, much rarer, kind of ensemble combines the small stringed instrument ensemble with quadruple-reed oboe and a pair of drums (klaung khaek). It is called khrueangsai pii chawaa, or stringed instrument ensemble with Javanese oboe. This ensemble is closely associated with royalty and plays both entertainment and ritual music, and was the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California Riverside, entitled Music for the Few: Nationalism and Thai Royal Authority.

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.

Want to see videos?

Supeena Insee Adler demonstrating the jakhee at UCLA. View here

Chin Kim Yai performed by Saharat Chanchalerm and orchestra at the Thai Cultural Center in Bangkok, Thailand. View here.

Thirty-five jakhee players perform at the funeral of their music teacher, khruu Thaungdii  Sujaritkul. View here

A khrueangsai pii chawaa ensemble performing at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. View here.

Supeena Insee Adler, Ph.D., is adjunct assistant professor at UCLA, ethnomusicologist, and performer. She also teaches Thai music at the Thai Buddhist Temple in Escondido, California.

Hardanger Fiddle

The Hardanger Fiddle of Norway

 

Hardanger Fiddle

Illustration by Paul Johnson

The fiddle is one of the most common instruments, found in one form or another in nearly every part of the world. It is best known today as the violin, which found its present form in sixteenth-century Italy.

Other bowed instruments have emerged in a range of cultures from Iceland to India. One of the most charming, both in the auditory and the visual sense, is the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle (also known as the hardingfele). This close cousin of the violin developed in the Hardanger district of western Norway, southeast of the port city of Bergen. It was developed by makers who probably combined aspects of the old Norse fiðla with the viola d’amore, one of the relatives of the violin. It seems to have first appeared in the 1600s, and quickly became popular throughout the region. Isak Neilsen Skaar and his son Trond Isaksen were two well-known early makers of the instrument. During the period from 1825 to 1875, the Helland family of Telemark brought the fiddle to its highest point of development. Jon Erikson Helland and his sons Erik Johnsen Helland and Ellef Johnsen Steinkjøndalen brought an exceptional degree of craftsmanship and artistic ability to their fiddlemaking, and incorporated a number of worthy improvements.

Several features make this instrument distinctive to Norway: the use of eight strings (only four of which are played with the bow; the other four vibrate sympathetically), the dragon’s head in place of a scroll, the overlapping f-holes, and the lavish use of inlay and decoration. Many fiddles have elegant floral drawings covering their surfaces, and often the peghead is detailed with gold leaf. There are also important structural differences, among them a lack of interior linings, very small corner blocks, and a bass bar which is carved into, not glued to, the sound board. The fingerboard and bridge are often nearly flat, allowing the player to bow more than two strings at a time.

The hardingfele is played in a variety of tunings; among them the common violin tuning GDAE (low to high) with the sympathetic strings tuned DEGA. Another is ADAE with DEF#A. The sympathetic strings give this fiddle’s sound a delightful coloration, with dark, shimmering undertones.

The folk fiddling of Norway draws one back to a simpler time, to a time of hard work at the loom or in the forests and fjords, of long winter evenings spent singing around the central fireplace, and of solemn processions and joyous wedding feasts with family gathered from afar.

A video of Sindre Vatnehol playing the Hardanger fiddle

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.

For more information on recordings, performances, instruments, and strings, visit the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America at http://www.hfaa.org.

Jonathan Parker  is the World Music in the Schools program director for the Center for World Music.

This article appeared in slightly different form in the November 1989 issue of the San Diego Folk Heritage journal Folk Notes.