Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2019
I’ve made a sort of study of musical instruments from around the world, each with its own unique sound. From India there is the sitar, best known, but also the sarod, sort of an Indian lute, and another stringed instrument called the veena. All get their unique sounds from having brass strings. (You can hear sitar on recordings by Ravi Shankar or his daughter Anoushka. Sarod by Ali Akbar Khan. Veena by S.I. Balachander.). In Japan there is the koto, a sort of horizontal harp with silk strings, which can be heard in recordings by Kimio Ito. The Chinese have a plethora of instruments with names I never learned. You can hear many in The Chieftains in China. The Chinese also use the pentatonic scale, with only five notes in an “octave,” which is why their music sounds weird to us. The pentatonic scale was developed in ancient Greece, at least so say the historians. Maybe the Greeks got it from Egypt, or even older cultures. Frustratingly we have no idea what ancient Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian, etc., music sounded like since they had no musical notation. We can only guess.
We know the Greeks, Egyptians, and other ancient cultures had stringed and wind instruments because both are depicted in their art, but we don’t know what they sounded like. Of course, all cultures had drums and percussion instruments.
The tabla drums of India are made of brass with hide drumheads that can be tuned so that different parts of the drumhead produce different sounds. They are. normally played in sets of two, a smaller one with higher pitch and a larger one with lower pitch. They are played with the fingers, palms, and even elbows. To hear a modern use of tabla drums, listen to Centa Terbaik by Tasya Rosmala. All Indian instruments, so far as I know, are played sitting on the floor, usually with half-lotus or even full-lotus positioning of the legs.
The Arabs have a large drum called a dumbeg and a smaller durbeki, played with the hands or short drumsticks. The Irish drum, played with both ends of a short drumstick is the bodhran. I’m sure the Turkish drums have names, but I don’t recall them. In Japan once I was treated to a performance of traditional big Japanese drums that are mounted with the drumheads vertical, and the players go at them with sticks the size of ax handles, attacking the drums as if trying to destroy them. Very, very loud! Almost .more of an athletic event than a musical performance. The performers wear loin cloths and are very muscular. The whole thing has a very savage feel.
Of course Africa and the Caribbean are where drums, a great variety of types and sizes, are the main instruments. To hear African drums at their best listen to the Missa Luba, a native Congolese mass performed with voices and drums. I’ve heard great drum music in the Caribbean, and, of course, there are the steel drums. There is a good recording of the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Drum Band available. Surprisingly, they hail from Rochester, NY! I don’t know how they tune those steel drums, but the sound can be beautiful.
Today the Mediterranean peoples have a variety of stringed instruments played like guitars. The Arab people have their oud, a fretless gut-stringed lute/guitar. To hear an oud played well, listen to Hala Laya by The Devil’s Anvil, from the album Hard Rock From The Middle East (where you’ll also hear dumbeg and durbeki drums). The Greeks have their bouzouki, also similar to a guitar. It is my understanding that the guitar itself was developed from the lute in Spain during the Moorish period. The Irish and Scot people, who originated in the eastern Mediterranean, took the Persian/Greek bagpipe north with them, along with the pentatonic scale. I’m not sure who carried musical instruments to Russia, perhaps the Rus brought them back from their viking raids on other cultures, but once Eastern Orthodox Christianity took hold, the balalaika, with its three strings and three-sided sound box (symbolizing the Trinity) was no surprise.
But a surprise did await the Spanish conquistadores in South America. In Bolivia at lake Titicaca they found Egyptian-looking reed boats and all over northern South America they found musicians playing in the pentatonic scale. In the Andes the local musicians played pentatonic panpipes and flutes. The stringed instrument was the charango, a sort of guitar/mandolin with a sound box made from the shell of an armadillo. Along with the panpipes there was a low pitched very long flute called senka tenkana (growing nose) that made the player stretch his arms. (To hear what Inca music sounded like, listen to “El Condor Pasa” by Los Incas, who also recorded as Urubamba.) Was the pentatonic scale carried to South America by ancient Egyptian sailors, or carried the other way? Apparently there was commerce between the regions because both tobacco and cocaine have been found in Egyptian mummies, and both originate in the Americas. There was apparently cross-cultural exchange in ancient times.
I find it odd that the Native peoples of North America were so musically undeveloped. Drums and flutes seem to be about it for their instruments, and often just the drums, accompanied by chanting. The music never made it up through Central America, apparently. Of course, depending on the date, much of today’s Central America was under water and migration largely impossible.
Humans like to make noise, and in many cultures unique musical traditions were developed. Will people of the distant future still listen to today’s music?
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Shell was recently moved from Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia to River North Correctional Center 329 Dellbrook Lane Independence, VA 24348. Mr. Shell continues to claim his innocence. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/bob-shell-a-stitch-in-relative-time/