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World Music Instrument: The Brazilian Tamborim

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of music instruments that students in World Music in the Schools enjoy with the tamborim.

Stefanie TamborimThe tamborim is a Brazilian drum of Portuguese and African origin. It is a small handheld frame drum used in samba, pagode, bossa nova, choro, and other Brazilian folk rhythms. It is typically made of a metal frame with a nylon or plastic head, although it can also be made of wood or plastic with an animal skin head. Because of the similarity between their names, it is often confused with the tambourine, a frame drum with metal jingles around the perimeter found in much music around the world, including the United States. The tamborim can also be confused with the pandeiro, the Brazilian version of the tambourine. Unlike the tambourine, however, the tamborim has no jingles and is played with a wooden stick, a finger, or a bundle of long flexible nylon rods that strike the head all at once. It typically plays a punctuated syncopated pattern that fits with the other interlocking rhythms in an ensemble.

TamborimIn a Brazilian Samba School setting, metal frame/nylon head tamborins (plural spelling) are played with the bundled-nylon rod baqueta. The resulting sound is a loud, high-pitch “CRACK” that cuts through the din of the other drums, making ear plugs a necessity. The tamborins in the Samba School maintain the underlying groove of the samba rhythm by playing carreteiro, which in Western musical terms is a constant series of 16th-notes played with a Brazilian “swing.” They manage to keep up with the rapid samba tempos by flipping the drum up and down so that the striking hand is not doing all of the work. When the tamborins are not playing carreteiro, they are playing desenhos (“designs”) which are unique rhythmic patterns that give the samba a special personality. Each Samba School has its own unique desenhos that are sometimes accompanied by choreographed movement. This instrument creates an exciting transition when the Samba School starts up, and a few moments later the tamborins make their big entrance and take the music to the next level!

— Stefanie Schmitz, World Music in the Schools Teaching Artist

Listen and see examples of the tamborim:

Choro Sotaque, Stefanie’s choro group (listen for the tamborim during the first 30 seconds)
Mocidade Samba School tamborim section
Tamborim demo

 

World Music Instrument: The Lao Khaen

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Christopher Adler, Ph.D.

The khaen is a free-reed mouth organ of the Lao people who live primarily in lowland Laos and the Northeastern region of Thailand (also called Isaan). The instrument consists of two rows of bamboo pipes that are mounted in a wooden windchest. The number of pipes can be between six and eighteen, but the most common form has sixteen pipes. Into each pipe is set a piece of flat metal with a tongue cut into it—this is the free-reed that vibrates whether the players blows into, or draw air out of the instrument, producing a continuous sound. Each pipe has a small finger hole near its reed that acts as an air escape valve, preventing the pipe from sounding unless covered by the player. And so the instrument can sound as many pipes as the player can cover, making it a polyphonic instrument—although the conventional musical texture is a combination of one or more sustaining drones with a melody that may be ornamented or harmonically embellished.

A spirit healing ritual in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Supeena Insee Adler, used by permission.

A spirit healing ritual in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Supeena Insee Adler, used by permission.

As a native instrument with rural origins, unaffiliated with elite royal cultures in the region, the khaen is upheld as a symbol of Lao cultural identity throughout the region and among the Lao diaspora worldwide. The instrument has also been adopted by other ethnic groups in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and is closely related to other free-reed mouth organs found throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Among the Lao, the khaen is traditionally played by both amateur and professional musicians to accompany solo singers called maulam in entertainment settings and sometimes also in spirit rituals. The music can be heard at temple festivals, in local markets, and in professional concerts, and is also taught in public schools and universities. Traditional performance genres are still maintained but are less popular than newer contemporary folk-pop fusions.

A maulam singer and dancers accompanied by a pong lang ensemble in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Mahasarakham University, used by permission.

A maulam singer and dancers accompanied by a pong lang ensemble in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Mahasarakham University, used by permission.

One such modernized form includes the khaen along with newer folk instruments as accompaniment to dance or singing. This ensemble, known as wong pong laang, is ubiquitous in Northeast Thailand at schools and universities and is presented nationally and internationally as a musical symbol of the Isaan region.

The khaen is also found in folk-pop fusion genre called lam sing, where the instrument appears as a visible sign of ethnic and regional identity, but is often sonically overwhelmed by other amplified instruments.

See the khaen in action on YouTube: Khaen Master Sombat SimlahLao Khaen Master Lung Kong |  Folk—Pop Fusion Wong Pong Laang

Christopher Adler, Ph.D is a former board member of the Center for World Music,  and is a composer, performer and improviser living in San Diego, California. In addition to being a Professor at the University of San Diego, he is internationally recognized as a foremost performer of new and traditional music for the khaen.

World Music Instrument: The Swedish Säckpipa

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Jonathan Parker.

15th century bagpipe painting in Härkeberga Church (photo Olle Gällmo)

15th century bagpipe painting in Härkeberga Church

When we think of bagpipes, most of us envision the Scottish Great Highland warpipes played by brawny, kilted men with red moustaches, marching in echelon. Indeed, the Highland pipes are known the world over, due to the regiments of Scots sent throughout the British empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. What few people recognize is that this instrument is only one of a very large family of musical instruments, played in dozens of countries. There are bagpipes from India, Persia, Bulgaria, North Africa, Russia, Italy, France, England, Ireland, Spain, Estonia, Poland, and Germany, to name a few. Many countries even have several; France has at least ten, and Scotland has no less than three distinctly different types. Altogether more than one hundred kinds of bagpipes exist, each with its own performance tradition and repertoire.

Today we’ll take a look at one of the farthest-flung of these, the Swedish säckpipa. As with many varieties of bagpipe, this humble instrument was played largely in the rural parts of the country. One early depiction of a bagpipe in Sweden is from around 1480, in a painting by Albertus Pictor in Härkeberga church in Uppland, although the form of the instrument he depicted suggests that its origin may be different from the surviving historical examples of the säckpipa. Also played for dancing, the säckpipa harmonizes well with the fiddle, but it was usually played as a solo instrument. It is mouth blown, having but one drone and a chanter with a compass of eight notes. Known in different parts of Sweden as dråmba, koppe, posu, or bälgpipa, its sound is quite sweet and about the same volume as a fiddle, making it an agreeable indoor instrument.

Säckpipa made by Leif Eriksson (drawing Paul Johnson)

Säckpipa made by Leif Eriksson

Instrument makers constructed the pipes from birch wood, with a calfskin bag, and sparingly decorated it with hand-carved ornaments. The reeds were made from Phragmites australis, the common pond reed, harvested in the winter and chopped out of the ice. Some early examples also have a second “dummy” drone, which is not drilled and has no reed. The säckpipa seems to be most closely related to the Eastern European bagpipes of Bulgaria and Macedonia, with a cylindrical chanter bore and reeds of the single blade type. This should not be too surprising, considering that Scandinavians traded, battled, and marauded all the way down to Constantinople, in what is now Turkey.

The säckpipa has recently undergone a rebirth, having been taken up by many young musicians over the last few decades. The last piper, or pösuspelman, in an unbroken tradition was Gudmunds Nils Larsson of llbäcken in Dala-Järna, who died in 1949. Fiddler Per Gudmundson, at the urging of Gunnar Ternhag of the Dalarnas Museum in Falun, decided in 1981 to reconstruct the instrument and its musical repertoire. Woodworker Leif Eriksson was asked to help, and he and Gudmundson replicated the instrument based on examples found in museum collections. Together they worked out the details, and built a working set of pipes. Per went on to research the available written and recorded music, taught himself to play the instrument, and recorded an album in 1983 which has become a classic volume, Per Gudmundson: Säckpipa. This LP was rereleased in CD format in August 2015 on Caprice Records.

The author and his pipes (drawing Paul Johnson)

The author and his pipes

Since its revival in 1981, a number of other makers have begun building this instrument, and there are now hundreds of active players in many countries. For more information about this instrument and how it has developed since this revival, visit Olle Gällmo’s säckpipa website.

Video links: Polska Efter Nedergårds Lars, solo säckpipa | Polska Från Säfsnäs, fiddle and säckpipa

— Jonathan Parker is the World Music in the Schools program director for the Center for World Music, and has played the säckpipa since 1986. Illustrations are by Paul Johnson; Olle Gällmo provided the photo from Härkeberga church and other valuable support.

This article appeared in slightly different form in the September 1990 issue of the San Diego Folk Heritage journal Folk Notes.

World Music Instrument: The Banjer, aka the Banjo

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Curt Bouterse, Ph.D.

The banjo (its city name), or banjer (its traditional country name) is often thought of as a uniquely American musical instrument. And that is true, as far as it goes. But, like almost everything that wasn’t already here before the Europeans landed, its origins lie elsewhere. When Africans were brought to the New World as slaves, they brought the knowledge of a wide variety of instruments with a neck and a body covered with skin. While there were similar ancient instruments elsewhere in the world, it is clear that the African pattern, especially the akonting, from the area of Senegal and the Gambia—even its style of playing—was the inspiration for the evolution of the banjo. The most likely crucible for such development was the Caribbean: the earliest observers and extant examples come from there. One of the distinctive marks of the instrument was the short, high-pitched string played as an intermittent drone.

A painting, before 1790, is perhaps the earliest depiction of the instrument in the United States.

A painting, before 1790, is perhaps the earliest depiction of the instrument in the United States.

Early chroniclers in the United States included Thomas Jefferson, who characterized it as a distinctive instrument of the slaves in Virginia. Somewhere along the way European influences such as tuning pegs and a flat fingerboard were added. Probably for practical reasons, the usual gourd-bodied construction was superseded by a drum-like shell and transformed into its modern form; early 19th century instruments are clearly recognizable as the banjo as we now know it.

A genre painting by William Sidney Mount, 1856, showing its early modern form.

A genre painting by William Sidney Mount, 1856, showing the instrument in its early modern form.

Follow these links to see videos of musicians playing a modern gourd banjo & fiddle, the author playing a small gourd banjo of his own making, the akonting (the banjo’s most likely ancestor), and the ngoni, another West African instrument.

Curt Bouterse, Ph.D. is a member of the Center for World Music’s Advisory Board, and is a historical scholar, organologist, traditional musician, and instrument maker widely respected for his deep knowledge of Early and Medieval Music, World Music, and American Folk Music.

World Music Instrument: The Berimbau

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that students in World Music in the Schools enjoy working with . . .

The berimbau (bee-rim-bau) is a single string percussion instrument, described as a musical bow with African origins. It is the main instrument used to produce the complex rhythms in Brazilian music that accompanies capoeira, a Brazilian martial art. The berimbau consists of a flexible wooden bow called the biriba or verga, a steel string called the arame, and a gourd called cabaça. The berimbau is played with the help of a small, thin stick called the baqueta or vareta, a metal or stone disk called dobrao or pedra, and a caxixi (shaker).

Every part of the berimbau plays a role in the production of the music and rhythm:

Biriba (verga) — The berimbau takes its name from this wooden rod, which is known as the backbone of the instrument. It can be made of many different kinds of wood, but the Brazilian species Eschweilera ovata (Cambess.), of the family Lecythidaceae is considered to be the best material for this part of the instrument.

Arame — Made from a piano string or salvaged from an automobile tire, this steel string has to be strong enough to withstand the tension of the biriba, as well as the battering of the baqueta. Its vibration produces the sound of the berimbau.

Berimbau illustration

Cabaça — Made from a hollowed-out and dried gourd, the cabaça is used to amplify the sound of the arame.

Baqueta — This beater is made from wood, and is used to strike the arame and produce sound.

Dobrão — Usually a coin or flat metal disk, the dobrão is used to vary the sound of the berimbau. When touched against the metal string it produces a higher pitch, and when pulled away from the string the pitch becomes lower. As an alternative to the coin, some players use a small flat stone (pedra).

Caxixi — A small percussion instrument, which consists of a closed basket containing seeds, which is shaken to produce a rhythmic sound. When played with the berimbau, it is held by a loop handle in the same hand as the baqueta, so that it shakes when the baqueta strikes the arame. It is believed that the caxixi summons good spirits, and wards against evil ones.

Berimbau closeupTo assemble the berimbau, the arame is attached to both ends of the biriba and pulled taught, which bends the beriba into its characteristic bow shape. The cabaça is attached to one end of the berimbau with a lace, which also helps the musician support the berimbau with their pinky finger while playing.

There are three sizes of berimbau, often played in an ensemble, and each contributing a different aspect to the music:

Gunga — This instrument has the largest cabaça (gourd) and the most flexible verga, and it produces the lowest pitch.

Médio — This berimbau uses a smaller gourd, with a tone and pitch between that of the gunga and the viola.

Viola — With the smallest gourd, and a less flexible verga, this instrument produces the highest pitch, and is used to add rhythmic fills between the steady rhythm shared by the other berimbaus in the ensemble.

— Claudia Lyra, World Music in the Schools Teaching Artist and artistic director of the Brazilian ensemble Nós de Chita

You can view Claudia demonstrating the berimbau on the Center for World Music’s YouTube Channel.

Setar

World Music Instrument: The Setar

This article featuring the Iranian setar is part of our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world musical instruments. Lessons on the setar are part of the CWMs innovative World Music in the Schools program. This instrument profile was contributed by Kourosh Taghavi.


The 
setar is a Persian (Iranian) stringed instrument with a small, pear-shaped soundbox and four metal strings. Its name means “three strings.” A fourth drone string was added about 150 years ago by the mystic Moshtagh Ali Shah. The drone string is referred to as the “Sim Moshtagh” (Moshtagh string) by many prominent tar and setar players. This modification gave the delicate instrument a “bigger” sound and more complex tuning possibilities. The resonating box of the setar is attached to a long neck that has twenty-five gut frets. The soundbox is made from mulberry wood, while the neck comes from the walnut tree. The instrument has a melodic range of just over twenty scale degrees. Although it is traditionally played with the right index finger’s nail, in the past three decades, two distinguished master performers, Mohammad-Reza Lotfi and Hossein Alizadeh, have introduced new techniques to give setar playing a whole new life.

 

Mohammad-Reza Lotfi

Mohammad-Reza Lotfi playing the setar.


Today the 
setar is generally considered the supreme instrument for performing Persian classical music. Due to new playing techniques, its evolution, and new approaches to melodies within Persian classical music boundaries, the setar has opened the door to contemporary compositions. 

It is hard to believe the setar was nearly forgotten during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to the tar‘s increased popularity. The tar a similar but larger instrument with a fuller sound. The tar is a double-chambered string instrument with three sets of double strings with the same fretting on its neck as the smaller, more delicate setar.

 

Hossein Alizadeh

Hossein Alizadeh playing the tar.


In 1984, a pivotal recording of a 
setar solo performed by the master Mohammad-Reza Lotfi brought the smaller instrument to the attention of a whole new generation of Persian classical music enthusiasts. Indeed, Lotfi’s historic album, in memory of the great musician Darvish Khan, enticed many young instrument makers and musicians to fall in love with the sound of the setar. Thus a new generation of setar makers and players has recently emerged.

 

Updated and expanded: March 9, 2021

Mbira

World Music Instrument: The Karimba Mbira

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that students in World Music in the Schools enjoy working with . . .

The mbira is a hand-held musical instrument that evolved in sub-Saharan Africa. In its many different forms, it is capable of producing both intimate singable melodies for meditation and vigorous percussive rhythms for dance. It can be used to delight and entertain, or it can be used to lend solemnity to religious ceremonies. Made from a small block of wood, with rows of tuned metal strips (lamellae) attached, the mbira naturally produces a subdued soft tone that can be amplified by placing it inside a large hollowed-out calabash gourd resonator (deze).

The mbira can be played as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble, with other mbiras or with drums (ngoma) or rattle shakers (hosho). When two mbiras are played together, each renders a different but complimentary interlocking musical part (kushaura or kutsinhira). As a native-trained teaching artist, I currently teach a solo mbira type from Zimbabwe—the karimba—in the San Diego K-12 public schools.

Garit Imhoff, World Music in the Schools Teaching Artist

See the mbira in action on YouTube. Also, San Diego students playing the Zimbabwean karimba.

View Teaching Artist Garit Imhoff in performance with Zimbeat on YouTube.

World Music Instrument: The Tabla

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that students in World Music in the Schools enjoy working with . . .

The tabla is a paired drum set from the northern regions of South Asia (North India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and parts of Afghanistan).  Consisting of a high drum (dayan) and a low drum (dagga or bayan), the tabla is played with the fingers, using a variety of different strokes and hand positions, to produce up to twenty different sounds.  Each of these sounds in turn has a name, or a syllable.  Together, these syllables (for example: ta, tin, dha, dhin) are used pedagogically as a rhythmic solfège—the syllables are sung to the student in order to teach rhythmic phrases, which are then reproduced on the drums.

Although the tabla was invented and popularized in the Mughal courts of Delhi approximately 300 years ago, the systems of music it stems from are over two thousand years old.  The tabla, in a sense, is a modern instrument that reflects South Asia’s embodiment of the ancient and the new—it has both Hindu roots and an Islamic Mughal past while continuing to thrive as a vibrant tradition, both within the contexts of North Indian Classical music as well as in the global musical landscape.

—Miles Shrewsbery, World Music in the Schools Teaching Artist

See the tabla in action on YouTube: Tabla Legend Ustad Alla Rakha | Interview with Zakir Hussain (Alla Rakha’s son) | Miles Shrewsbery Tabla Solo

Learn more about Teaching Artist Miles Shrewsbery and his music at tablamiles.com.

Metal and Castanha Agogos

World Music Instrument: The Agogô

The first in a planned series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that students in World Music in the Schools enjoy working with . . .

The agogô is an instrument used widely in West Africa, Brazil, and throughout the world. The name comes from ágogo (AH-go-go) meaning “double bell” in the tonal Yoruba language and is onomatopoeia for the two sounds it makes. In my classes for the Center for World Music we use the Afro-Brazilian agogô (ah-go-GO). The agogô is a type of handbell similar to our cowbell. It has two or more bells attached to a handle and is played with a wooden stick. The bells can be made of metal, castanhas-do-Pará (Brazil nut shells), coconuts, gourds, wood, or large seeds. The agogô is found in a variety of Afro-Brazilian musical styles including maracatu, maculelê, batucada of the samba schools, afoxé, songs of capoeira, and more. It is used in ceremonies and rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé.

—Stefanie Schmitz, World Music in the Schools Teaching Artist

Agogôs in action on YouTube:  Demo with Stefanie | A Four-Toner in Brazil |  Brazil Nut Shell Agogô

More on Stefanie: StefanieSchmitz.net