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Link to this year's index by clicking here.

Musical Instrument Museum, Part 2

The next exhibit room contains a number of very unusual instruments. I suppose this is akin to an appetizer — designed to make you want more. It worked for me.

This instrument is an octobasse, designed by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a French violin maker and entrepreneur. It was first exhibited at the 1849 French Industrial Exposition in Paris.

This design is unique in that it employs a system of levers that activate a mechanism that pulls the strings against the frets. The musician stands on the supporting stool and draws a huge bow over the strings while pulling on the levers.

The octobasse was intended not to double orchestral basses but to play sustained tones under them. The composer Hector Berlioz wrote that "any festival orchestra with over 150 players ought to have at least three of them."

This instrument is the only playable example in the Western Hemisphere. If you would enjoy seeing a video of it being played, click here.

On this wall hangs four different balalaikas from Russia. If you ever saw or read Doctor Zhivago, you might recall that the balalaika had a small role that tied various parts of the story together.

You will note that the four instruments displayed here are all different sizes — and produce different ranges of notes, as one would expect.

Typically, a balalaika has three strings although some modern instruments have six duplicating the notes of the first three. Curiously, modern players usually tune their balalaika to E-E-A (the two lower notes being tuned to the same pitch). The older method was tuning to D-F#-A. Why the change? Who knows?

Pictured to the right is a pocket cornet, manufactured in 1885. You are probably familiar with a cornet, a brass instrument similar to a trumpet albeit more compact with a mellower tone quality. The major difference is simply the folding of the tube to a more compact configuration. The pocket cornet takes this even further resulting a smaller design with potentially the same tonal range. I say "potentially" because some instruments were made with a longer or shorter shank (some came with two) which changes the range.

Ah, now we are getting into my domain with an ukulele. These are derived from a similar instrument brought to Hawai`i by Portuguese immigrants — many of whom came to the islands as cowboys (paniolo in Hawai`ian pidgin) working the cattle ranches — or so I was told when I lived on Maui.

The name "ukulele" is generally translated as "jumping flea" — presumably because of the way the player's fingers jump all over the four strings. According to Queen Lili`uokalani, the last Hawai`ian monarch, the name means "the gift that came here", from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come). Maybe both meanings are correct.

Those of us who are older may remember Arthur Godfrey playing it on his eponymous TV show. And don't forget Tiny Tim singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips as he played his ukulele. Less well-known is the fact that former Beatle, the late George Harrison was also an enthusiastic player. [An aside: how many of you recall that George Harrison had an estate at Hana, Maui? Possible connection to his fondness for the ukulele? Perhaps.]

More recently, the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole helped re-popularize the instrument with his 1993 ukulele medley of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World. That medley was used in several films, TV programs and commercials.


Now here's a drum — specifically, a tabo (goblet drum), from the Philippines. As a former woodworker, I was very impressed with the intricate carving of the wooden sides. As I stood admiring the woodwork, I was then struck with the question, how does one play this drum which stands about six feet tall?

The guitar in the photo appears to be a mariachi guitar. Truthfully, I was so taken by the drum, I forgot to record any details about the guitar.

This is a kora from the Mandinka people of West Africa. The instrument is constructed from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator, and has a notched bridge like a lute or guitar. Traditional koras feature 21 strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example antelope skin — now most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.

The sound of a kora resembles that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style, it bears a closer resemblance to flamenco and delta blues guitar techniques. The player uses only the thumb and index finger of both hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns (using the remaining fingers to secure the instrument by holding the hand posts on either side of the strings). Ostinato riffs ("Kumbengo") and improvised solo runs ("Birimintingo") are played at the same time by skilled players.

Here a very curious instrument, the strohviol, invented by Augustus Stroh for sound amplification during the early days of recording on wax cylinders. It was played like a traditional violin and, according to one account, sounds remarkably like a violin despite the complete lack of a body.

And here we have a replica udu or vessel drum patterned after the drums of the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria. "Udu" means pot (the vessel not the weed for smoking) and these drums originally were just that, simple water pots.

A potter once struck an extra hole in its side while crafting a water pot and discovered the beautiful sound that resulted from it. This musical pot has many different names in Nigeria: udu, abang mbre (pot for playing) or kim kim, just to name a few.

Traditionally, only Igbo women produce udus and other pottery. But why only the ladies? Because pottery is too dangerous for men: The needed clay is collected in sacred locations. The presence of a man in those secret spots would be a serious offense and cause him to become impotent! At least that's what the tradition says.

This photo shows a bat khine AKA gong chime. It consists of a series of pot gongs mounted on a circular frame — and sometimes called a gong circle. It is played by one to four players using padded sticks to strike the gongs.

They are found in Southeast Asia, this one is from the Mon people in Thailand. This style is traditionally associated with funeral and cremation ceremonies.

To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com