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The Indian bansuri is a bamboo flute played in the transverse manner like the western concert flute. Because of its large fingerholes, each note can be adjusted by partial covering of the hole, so infinite shades of pitch variation are theoretically possible. The sound of the bansuri is pure and sweet, and nothing evokes the spiritual heart of the Indian subcontinent better. Sitars are fine for Indian food commercials, but for sheer beauty, stillness, depth and mystery – in almost any context – a bansuri is hard to beat.
The Armenian duduk is a double reed instrument with a soft, beautiful and touching sound, described as something between a flute and an oboe. It is traditionally played in pairs with one player supplying a drone. Equal hole spacing gives a Turkish folk modality, but the Armenian player adjusts this to a more western pitching by careful finger positioning and lip pressure. Playing style involves soft note attacks, dynamic variation and vibrato with a good deal of subtle gracing.
The ordinary tin whistle as an Irish folk instrument provides that sound element which, when combined with fiddle or pipes, marks the music as unmistakeably Irish. The delicate gracings that are integral to Irish music can best be performed on an unkeyed instrument such as the whistle, and the resulting music calls to mind nothing so much as a butterfly flitting from flower to flower – that is, if you’re gifted with a vivid visual imagination, which no musician is.
To prove my point, here is the true story of Tommy Peoples, the legendary Irish fiddler, being interviewed on Radio Telefis Eireann. After detailing all the wonderful images that Tommy’s playing evoked in his mind’s eye – the green grass waving in the sunshine, the birds in the hedgerows, the mist drifting over the mountains – the enthusiastic interviewer asked Tommy if he, too, saw such scenes as he played. “No,” replied Tommy.
“You don’t see rainbows on the Slieve Mish, you don’t see streams running over stones, you don’t see the bothys and cottages on the hillside?”
“No,” said Tommy.
“But what do you see then?” asked the perplexed interviewer.
“Nothin’,” said Tommy.
Irish Low Whistle
The low whistle (twice the size of the tin whistle and sounding an octave lower) is simply a recent invention for whistle players who want to sound like flute players without having to learn flute embouchure. The low whistle, however, doesn’t sound like a flute. It has a pleasant character all its own, very effective and evocative in capable hands.
The ney is a simple tube of cane open at both ends, sounded by blowing upon the rim of the tube. This is in contrast to the transverse flute which is blocked at the top end, the sound being produced by blowing across a hole in the wall of the instrument. The ney is a very old instrument and is depicted in Egyptian tomb friezes from as long ago as 3000 BC. Neys possess different hole arrangements in different parts of the middle East, but are basically divided into the Arab/Turkish type with seven holes and the Persian with six. The Arab sound is made with the lips, and looks like someone kissing or whistling. The Persian sound is made with the tongue and teeth, and looks like someone trying to pick their front teeth with a walking stick. In the upper register the instrument has a sweet sound with gracings and sliding pitches, and it is this which most effectively evokes the sumptuous magic of the Thousand and One Nights – or a Cairo night club.
The kaval is the Europeanized form of the ney. It is sounded in the Arab way, having the same range of some two and a half octaves, but with a complete chromatic scale in the upper register. In the lowest octave a certain amount of cheating is needed to fill in the missing semitones, since the hands of human beings are only very rarely equipped with twelve fingers. When I was a child in Kenya we had a gardener called Mwakamba who had six fingers on each hand. The extra digit protruded from the base of his little finger like a sort of growth; I don’t think he could have played kaval with it.
In most of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa you can find some form of basic flute. Central Africans tend to prefer fixed to sliding pitches, so their flute style is fixed notes, with simple melodic phrasing where rhythmic articulation is as important as melody. I am not referring here to the South African penny whistle. Like most South African black music penny whistle playing reveals a strong white European influence. The sub-Saharan flute is purely African; It takes you right out of the western frame of reference and far away to the morning of the world.
The suling is a type of ducted flute played primarily in Java, Bali and Sumatra. It is not usually heard on its own, but as part of a gamelan tuned percussion ensemble. It does, however, possess a beautifully delicate and sensitive sound, and a strange humid quality in its lower register, like a rare tropical flower. The arrangement of fingerholes varies on different instruments to correspond with the two Indonesian pentatonic modes, pelog and slendro, the latter of which is about as far removed from western equal-tempered tuning as it is possible to be. To sound authentic you will want to use the native tunings, but please don’t try to use them over any kind of chord sequence, you will regret it.
The shakuhachi needs no introduction. Japanese technology ensured the worldwide dissemination of that famous glottal-sounding shakuhachi phrase early in the history of samplers. Now it has become such a cliché that advertising agencies love using it for deodorant commercials. Along with that (in)famous phrase, we give you a number of authentic shakuhachi performances and scales in two Japanese modes, performed by Britain’s top shakuhachi master Clive Bell.
The Aymara panpipe is played by Peruvian folk musicians, sometimes in the Andes mountains but equally often, it seems, in Leicester Square, London. Like the shakuhachi, the South American panpipe needs no introduction, having been popularised decades ago in the form of a Korg M1 patch from which many CD’s flowed, selling in large numbers on garage forecourts. However, no ethnic wind sample collection would be complete without a Peruvian panpipe multisample, and so here it is with soft and loud attacks, played by Juan Mateo, a genuine Aymara busker from Leicester Square.
The Slovakian fujara is a five-and-a-half foot long contrabass whistle. That is taller than the average Slovak. The pipe is doubled back to half its height so you blow it in the middle at the back of the instrument, holding it up in the air so that the top sticks up way above your head while your hands span the three widely-separated finger holes down by your knees. Tricky? Yes indeed, but the hardest part is hitting the right note, because these are selected from high upper partials and are extremely difficult to sound accurately at will. If you can do it (Slovak mountain shepherds can, but they have plenty of time to practise) the effort is well worthwhile. The sound of the fujara is eerie, breathy and complex, with strange mixtures of several different harmonics in each note, and a finger-vibrato that alternates emphasis of partials, giving an intriguing warbling effect. Enough description, listen to the samples!
The Czech dudy is a central European bagpipe found in different versions in Germany, Poland and Hungary. Its chanter (melody pipe) is of a primitive single-reed type that occurs all over Europe, from Wales to Russia. Cowhorn bells are used to amplify both drone (continuous note pipe) and chanter. The skin is that of a long-haired goat, hair side out, and the chanter stock is in the form of a carved goat’s head, which, along with the bleating sound quality, completes the impression any American tourist might have that the guy is actually playing a live goat.
The gaida is a bagpipe played in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece. As an instrument with a skilled tradition attached, it requires a lot of practice (like the Highland pipes, preferably in a sound-proofed room or somewhere far from human habitation.) The bag is made from the uncut skin of a goat, with pipes inserted where the head and forelegs used to go. The chanter sounds rather different from western bagpipes, being sounded by a single reed, like a small clarinet reed. It is played in a rather oriental style with frequent gracings and sliding between notes. Gaidas come in several keys, usually unrelated to western concert pitch. The highest pitched is around D (highest note A, an octave and a sixth above middle C); this chanter has a shrill sound like a demented wasp – the Greeks call it kounoupi (mosquito). Normal pitch for a gaida is around B flat with a more mellow sound; the lowest pitched is the Rhodope gaida with a keynote of E or E flat.
The Irish Uilleann pipe is the world’s most insanely complicated bagpipe, an instrument which could only have been invented by the Irish. It looks like a crazy experiment in Victorian plumbing, but its sound evokes worlds beyond the ordinary, and it is this which has made the instrument so popular in recent years, much used on film scores and pop albums. An added advantage is that the chanter is (nominally at any rate) tuned to tempered pitch and has a two-octave range, greater than that of any other bagpipe. Chanters are normally in D major but are also made in C, B and B flat. These latter, flat set chanters have quite a different timbre from the D, being narrower in bore and quieter. Their sound has a woody or nutty quality as compared to the brighter, more open sound of the D chanter.
“Uilleann” is Irish for elbow and refers to the action of the elbow in pumping the bellows to keep the bag inflated – hence the Irish expression “more power to your elbow”. Playing technique makes use of subtle gracings, sliding notes and finger vibrato, much as in Balkan and middle Eastern piping. The Uilleann pipes must be played sitting down, and by closing the chanter on the knee or lifting it off, effects can be produced such as staccato, changes in the timbre of certain notes, or popping – a yelping sound like a barking dog.
Scots Highland Pipes
The Scottish piob mhor (great pipe) is the world’s best known bagpipe. Reactions to its wild, piercing sound range from love to hate, with nothing in between. The fact that it is instantly associated with Scotland does rather limit its use, but Highland pipers all over the world (and there are many thousands of them) can usually find employment on Hogmanay and Burns Night. (And once every 1000 years, they can charge $3000 to pipe in the Millennium.) It is a little known fact that the highest population of Highland pipers is concentrated in Australasia, the area of the world that includes India, Indochina, the Indonesian archipelago, Japan and Australia. That is why the annual World Highland Piping convention takes place in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is in the middle. Highland piping technique is the most demanding of any bagpipe, requiring the crisp execution of multiple gracings at a speed which the untrained ear cannot detect. To play these gracings satisfactorily requires many years of dedicated effort. To get around this problem, a Japanese businessman has recently invented a computerized robot chanter that does the gracings perfectly by means of electrically-operated keys and an air pump. (This is absolutely true, I read it in the Highland Pipers Quarterly.)
The Praetorius bagpipe is of a late medieval German design. It is named after Michael Praetorius, the 16th century German musicologist who included a sketch of it in a book of instruments of the period. The European middle ages (roughly 1000 to 1600 AD) were undoubtedly the era of the bagpipe. Paintings, illustrations and church carvings from the period abound with bagpipers. Contemporary attitudes, however, were mixed. The apocalyptic artist Hieronymus Bosch saw bagpipes as phallic symbols encouraging sexual licentiousness leading to eternal torment in Hell. Supporting his view, gargoyles of bagpipers appear alongside grotesque faces in medieval cathedrals. Breughel the Elder made his famous paintings of Flemish villagers dancing lasciviously to the music of bagpipes. Angels playing bagpipes, however, also appear in medieval religious iconography, so the instrument must have been thought heavenly to some people at least.
The Turkish tulum is a bagpipe without a drone, but with a double chanter made of two pieces of cane and a flared wooden bell. It is similar in construction to the Greek tsabouna, a primitive bagpipe whose music is among the most ancient in Europe, connecting directly back to the double-pipe (avlokitos) of ancient Greece. (I didn’t include any tsabouna samples on this CD-ROM because it sounds practically identical to the mezoued – see below.)
The tulum is in fact another ancient Greek instrument, played by the original Greek inhabitants of Pontos in what is now northern Turkey. Tulum music is played very fast with frequent gracings and trills, making its melodies difficult for the western ear to detect. (Well, impossible, to be honest.) Tulum players, unique among players of primitive bagpipes, achieve polyphony by briefly fingering only one of the parallel holes instead of both. In this way simultaneous intervals from a second to a sixth can be sounded.
The mezoued or zuqqara is similar to the Greek island tsabouna in construction, except that it has six fingerholes instead of five, and these are slightly differently spaced, producing a different scale. Otherwise, its sound is the same as that of the tsabouna. It is found in North Africa and the Arab countries of the Levant. Because of its status as revered folk instrument, it is not in the same danger of extinction as the tsabouna – this could also be because Arabs quite like the sound of it.
The zourna, or oriental shawm, has a powerful and penetrating sound useful for outdoor events such as weddings, dances and wars. In former times, going back as far as ancient Egypt, it was exclusively a military instrument. The medieval Turkish army used a combination of zournas and drums to terrify their European enemies, much as Scottish highlanders did with the piob mhor. In fact the sound of the highland pipe is not dissimilar to that of the zourna. Nowadays the zourna has lost its military connotation and suggests to the Turk only joyful and unrestrained celebration, accompanied by yelling, firing of rifles and scattering of women and children.
The shenai is a double-reed shawm with a quieter and more oboe-like voice than the zourna. Crescendo and diminuendo are an integral part of Indian music. This, combined with sliding between pitches (portamento), is what characterizes the Indian woodwind sound. Indian wind music is also notable for its long sustains completely free of vibrato, interspersed with active melismatic lines. The shenai is difficult to play, and the only Indian shenai player in Europe is – in my experience at least – extremely reluctant to impart his knowledge. If he is typical, this would explain why few exponents of shenai can be found outside India.
The Egyptian zummara is a cane double pipe sounded by a pair of single reeds. It is made in two sections with different widths of cane fitted into each other. It is, like the ney and the zourna, of very ancient provenance, depicted on the tomb friezes in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings.
The Cretan askomandura is another version of the ancient Greek double pipe, developed into a bagpipe (aski = bag, mandura = pipe). Askomandura tunes are the basis of all the old Cretan dance tunes, although the askomandura itself, like its cousin the tsabouna, is no longer well-regarded locally and is heard as often in south-east England (where I live) as in Crete nowadays. Traditional Cretan dance tunes are remarkable for their liveliness, insistent rhythm and modular complexity; all the more so when you consider that, like most folk melodies of the eastern Mediterranean, they employ no more than five or six notes. The genius of askomandura music is its intricacy within such a limited pitch range.
The Moroccan nafir is a long brass trumpet in three sections which can be taken apart and put in your saddle bag while you are riding across the desert. Should you come across some herdsmen you can then assemble your instrument, frighten the life out of them with a loud blast on the nafir and steal their camels.
The Kudu horn is an instrument favoured by the Masai nomads of East Africa. It is a spiral-shaped antelope horn with a hole bored near the pointed end, and played like a trumpet or a conch. The single note has a pleasant French horn-like quality and makes a good pad sound. The phrases are pretty wild and will work well on top of African drums for sports show themes and other atavistic rituals.