AMI Blog

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS VS CURIOS

I was at a teacher’s workshop a few years ago, and one of the attendees told me that their school had very little money, and while she would have loved to invest in AMI instruments, they were beyond the school’s budget. She was excited to have found an instrument maker selling xylophones on the side of the road and had bought them for the school. Sadly, the instruments were not much more than curios and I feared that before long they would fall apart.

I have been wondering why this story bothers me so much.

If you play a western instrument, you probably understand that you get good instruments, and you get bad ones. The more serious you are about your instrument, the more you will try every way possible to get the best instrument you can – through any means available. Instruments vary enormously. A good instrument sounds wonderful, has an even tone throughout the range, and is easy to play in that it does not have too many quirks for the musician to get around. Of course, the maker of the instrument is really important. Some names have come to stand for quality and excellence. With each instrument, or family of instruments, particular maker’s instruments will be highly sought after. Conversely, you may know to avoid some brands because they will always disappoint.

Every instrument – no matter from which part of the world, or which tradition – has a long history of development. Over the years (sometimes measured in centuries), modifications have been made to make the instrument more playable, more useful, more expressive. This is just as much the case with African instruments as with the instruments of the Western symphony orchestra (and… let us not forget… the mighty pianoforte!). African musicians have crafted their instruments and there are many fine examples of deep understanding of how sound and materials marry to make the best music possible. Take Chopi timbila xylophones: These instruments incorporate overtone tuning of the notes (made of tempered sneezewood), and exact tuning of resonators (made of gourds). Together, these create the most powerful volume and gorgeous timbre. The knowledge needed to create these instruments developed over time, one maker tried something new, or found that a slight change to the structure of the instrument made a big difference. The timbila is a complex instrument and the traditional versions incorporate at a substantial list of different natural products. Today, some of those materials have been replaced by modern, more easily available materials. Zimbabwean mbiras, while using fewer materials than the timbila, are equally sophisticated in their construction.  The layouts of different mbiras keyboards fit the player’s hands, but their logic relates closely to the musical vernaculars of the communities who play them. Good instruments from respected makers are highly sought after. The tiny details that make it a good sounding, responsive instrument are hidden in the exact positioning of the bridge, the weight of the wood, the thinness of the keys. You can buy ‘tourist’ versions at markets, on the side of the road in Zimbabwe, or at Johannesburg’s fancy OR Tambo airport, but these are like cheap children’s toys compared to the real deal. All they are good for is hanging on a wall – an ethnic curio with an African flavour. They are made to look ethnic and although they have some kind of sound, that is probably not what the maker prioritised. They aren’t for playing, and they probably aren’t very strong, so don’t think of them as children’s toys either.

What worries me about the school that bought cheap roadside instruments is that there was little understanding of the sophistication of African instrument construction, and the knowledge that is carried by the instrument makers. The idea that ‘anyone can make them’ is insulting to the knowledge traditions of all those incredible African instrument makers that have honed their craft, often learning from their elders. It is insulting because it denies the fact that that knowledge exists – the most odious form of colonialism.

When AMI visits schools to tune and maintain their marimbas, we sometimes come across instruments that look like AMI marimbas, but are copies. At first glance they look similar, but the proof of the pudding is in the way they are built. The copies have been built with no understanding of how the instruments’ acoustics work. The design features of AMI xylophones and marimbas have been honed over decades. Each manufacturing decision is determined first by sound quality, then by the need for instruments to be robust, then by which easily available materials can achieve the best result at the most economical cost. It matters which woods are chosen, how notes are strung, which tuning protocols are used. A hundred tiny decisions determine that a step in the manufacturing process is done this way and not that way. This is what ensures the very best marimbas that will facilitate great music… and like good instruments everywhere – will improve with age.

One of the ongoing tasks in post-apartheid is to come to grips with transforming our society. One part of that is decolonising education. The way we can best show respect for African musical traditions is to honour the knowledge demonstrated in the construction of African instruments. That is part of AMI’s mission.  

Photo credit: International Library of African Music

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