The Jazz.com Blog
October 05, 2008 · 0 comments
I never fail to be impressed with the range of strange musical offerings available on the Internet. Recently, I wrote an article in this column on videos featuring intriguing glimpses inside the musician’s practice room. Today, I would like to follow it up by focusing attention on the sadly neglected field of homemade musical instruments.
How things have changed. Back in the Paleolithic age, all instruments were homemade . . . or perhaps cave-made, as the case may be. Nowadays, you buy your chordophones and aerophones on eBay. No doubt this counts as progress, but I must admit to harboring a bit of nostalgia for the days when musicians rolled up their sleeves and made their own tooting and banging contraptions.
I recall Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s fascinating account of his experiences teaching youngsters in a music camp. He thought he would begin at the ultimate starting point: how to make a drum. But even the first step proved challenging. Obtain the hide of two-year-old steer. I will spare you the bloody details of this Sarah Palin approach to drum apprenticeship. Needless to say, that was one drum those kids will never forget.
Fortunately we have YouTube to show us the ways and means of making our own instruments. I am fascinated, for example, by the Jamaican musician named Sugar Belly who has constructed a functional instrument from a car horn, cardboard, tape and a mouthpiece. I'm not sure even Adolphe Sax could have done a much better job with those ingredients. And who can fail to be impressed by the range of instruments constructed from bottles and containers featured on this video? Lest you dismiss such offerings, recall how the steel drum tradition forged a vibrant musical genre out of the detritus of industrial society. Who knows where the next similar breakthrough will originate?
Not everything here lives up its booking, though. I was disappointed with this instructional video on how to make a drumset out of Lego. I was equally unimpressed by this guide to constructing a trumpet from a toilet paper roll or a mute from a one dollar air freshener. Mark my words: You wouldn’t catch Chris Botti tooting on anything that came out of a Charmin package.
I must admit that I don’t run into the “cello banjo” very often. It sounds like the punch line of a bad joke. (What do you get if you combine Yo-Yo's Ma with Danny's Barker?) But I am even less familiar with string instruments constructed from leftover bicycle parts. Yet this enterprising gentleman has done things with an old Schwinn that even Lance Armstrong never dreamt of.
The banjo seems to inspire many homespun inventors. Connoisseurs of YouTube performance art can enjoy impromptu concerts played on a red wine box banjo or a cookie tine banjo or oilcan banjo. However, with the price of oil these days, I would advise switching to a solar- or wind-powered unit.
Of course, you can’t believe everything you see on YouTube. Frankly, I was skeptical when I first encountered this enthusiastic advocate of handmade vegetable instruments. The commentary is in Japanese, but fortunately subtitles have been added—in case you can’t tell the difference between “carrot panpipes” and a “broccoli ocarina” at first glance. But I became a true believe when I heard the path-breaking work of the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra. Finally we have the perfect all-organic band for the Whole Foods demographic. No messy hide from a two-year-old steer required in this ensemble!
Here is an extract from one critic’s review of a performance of VVO: “The concert was truly a sensory experience towards the end when the sharp scent of celery and onion filled the venue and juices from bruised vegetables stained the performers' attire.” Hey, can Jazz at Lincoln Center match that?
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This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.