African Instruments

These pictures come from a Friday Noon Talk we gave in January, 1991 at the Archives of Traditional Music's Hoagy Carmichael Room at Indiana University (Hoagy Carmichael was a tunesmith and occasional actor in the 1930's; he was also a law student at IU in the 1920's, and his family sponsored this special meeting/reception room). We called it "Africa on Our Kitchen Table", with Bill demonstrating the African instruments he had made (largely using the kitchen table of our small apartment as his workbench) and me talking about (and providing samples of) African food. Most of the instruments we used for this talk were ones Bill made himself, variously using hide, wood, dried gourds, pampas-grass stalk, bamboo, string, artificial sinew and nylon fishing line (which is authentic for African stringed instruments these days).

Bill with East-African lyre)

Here Bill is playing his East African-style lyre. This was originally an Ethiopian krar, but Bill modified the tuning mechanism to be more like other East African lyres.

instruments displayed

The instruments Bill made are in the foreground; on the piano-bench are instruments we either bought or received as gifts, including on the far right of the bench a Moroccan gimbiri our friend Brahim gave us, which has a tortoise shell for the resonator. The big gourd on the straight stick, on the floor to the rear left, is an unusual instrument from Cameroon called an mvet. It is played by holding the gourd between the elbows against the body and plucking the strings two-handed, with one hand on top and one hand facing up from the bottom. The strings can number from four to nine, mounted in an inverted V on a central bridge; you can't see the strings well here, but there are five of them on this one. The big white one in the middle is modeled after a Gambian harp; it is made from a hollowed log covered in rawhide (thus the whiteness). In the foreground is a musical bow, an instrument found all over Africa with many variations. This one has a gourd resonator but is further resonated against the mouth like an oversized jaw harp. Traditionally, people often took a small musical bow with them when traveling on foot, to pass the time.

Bill continued to make instruments after this. He made several tries at a West African kora, an extremely impressive 21-stringed harp lute, but wasn't happy enough with the results to keep one of them (the strings are the devil to tune using traditional sinew bindings instead of pegs) until we managed to get an enormous gourd for the resonator during our trip to Nigeria in 1991. He has also made several karimba-type lamellophones, better known as mbiras or thumb pianos, and experimented with various flutes and decoration styles. He doesn't limit himself to the continent of Africa, but enjoys exploring traditional techniques and esthetics from South America, Native North America, and Australia (well, basically everywhere). He made a really cool-looking Australian didgeridoo out of a PVC pipe, covered with papier mache to give it a spiral wood-type shape and painted with pigments from red sandstone, black charcoal, white chalk, and yellow turmeric-plus-chalk (since we couldn't get yellow ochre). And then there's his beautiful Appalachian dulcimer (now languishing with a broken string).

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Abbie Anderson
Last updated 8/28/99