Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Oberlin Kora Collection

   Oberlin currently has eight koras in the collection.  In the photo at right I am holding one of them.  They were the principal instrument in the Oberlin Mandinka Ensemble, which also included two balafons.  The ensemble grew from my field research and kora studies in Gambia in 1970.  I brought back three koras originally.  After starting the ensemble at Oberlin in 1977, I returned to Gambia in 1987 to buy more instruments.  In this photo my teacher, the renowned kora virtuoso Jali Nyama Suso, and I are preparing six koras for shipment.  They were made by Alieu Suso, a well known Gambian maker, and hand-picked for Oberlin by Jali Nyama.
   The kora is classified as a bridge harp (an older term, harp lute, is obsolete).  It has 21 strings in two rows, played with thumbs and forefingers.  In a future post I will discuss in more depth the features of the instrument and its classification.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Dominican Marimba

     This instrument may be seen among the instruments from my collection in the photo at right.  In Dominican Republic, it is called marimba, but in other parts of the Caribbean, marimbula.  It is a "plucked-metal bass," technically known as a plucked idiophone, or lamellaphone.  It could also be called a "bass mbira" since it is a large variety of this type of instrument found in many parts of Africa.  In Dominican Republic today it is often replaced by an electric bass, but in more rural areas, it is still played.
    This marimba was made by Elio Trabal and me following a field trip to Dominican Republic in 2003, sponsored by the McNair Foundation.  We filmed and recorded a rural band called Nuevo Renacer led by Lorenzo Brito in the village of Rancho de los Platanos, in the mountains above the town of Moca.  His band had a marimba like this one, but smaller.  Based on photos, we built this replica.  It is painted in the Oberlin colors of crimson and gold, and decorated with a map of Dominican Republic, with a star marking Elio's home town of La Vega.  The tongues are stainless steel kitchen spatulas.  They produce three deep tones.  To play the marimba, you lean it against a wall (hence the curved back), sit on top of it straddling the tongues, and pluck the tongues with a chip of rubber.  At the same time, you hit the side of the box with a small tin can.

The Knight System for Musical Instrument Classification

As a student of Klaus Wachsmann at UCLA shortly after he published a translation of the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system (see previous post), I immediately began my own exploration of the H-S system.  Building on similar endeavors by many other scholars, I have now devised a new system for the classification of musical instruments.  It is based on Hornbostel-Sachs, dividing the world of instruments into four large families, based on how the sound is produced.  The four families are 1, Idiophones, meaning instruments whose body itself (or some part of it) produces the sound; 2, Membranophones, or drums, in which the sound is produced by a stretched membrane; 3, Chordophones, instruments whose sound is produced by stretched strings; and 4, Aerophones, meaning instruments in which sound is produced by exciting the air directly, either by blowing or by mechanical means.  A fifth category, Electrophones, was added after the original publication of Hornbostel-Sachs.
   The Knight System for Musical Instrument Classification grew from rethinking the subfamilies and incorporating new findings.  In the near future,  a pdf copy of the Knight System, first presented to the public at the Niagara Chapter meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology at Kent State University, March 26, 2010, will be available on this site.  In the meantime, if you would like to have a copy, please email me. 

Hornbostel and Sachs

Organology, or the scientific study of musical instruments, has ancient roots, but the modern study began with the publication in 1914 of a classification system by Erich M. von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs.  It was entitled Systematik der Musikinstrumente: Ein Versuch, or, The Classification of Musical Instruments:  an Exploration.  The document was translated into English in 1961 by Anthony Baines and Klaus Wachsmann and published in the Galpin Society Journal.  It is readily available.  The original German document is harder to find.  With permission from the publisher, Zeitschrift fuer Ethnologie, I have prepared a pdf copy for e-distribution.  I will post it here in the future.  If you would like a copy before it is posted, please email me.