Amidst the roar of guitars, the thunderous beat of drums, and the gentle melody of pianos, there lies a world of lesser-known musical instruments. These hidden gems enrich the tapestry of world music, lending unique, surprising, enthralling and sometimes eerie tones to compositions. They add depth and variance to landscapes of sound that, while beloved, can become familiar and expected. Let’s take an explorative journey into the universe of these hidden music characters from various global ethnic cultures.
Hang Drum – Switzerland, the melodious UFO-like instrument
The Hang Drum, hailing from the Swiss mountains, resembles a UFO. Its inward-curving steel body has rendered it the nickname “Hang,” or “hand” in Bernese, because it is played by striking it dramatically with one’s hands. The Hang Drum is known for its ethereal melodies and its ability to create sounds as deep as the sea and as airy as a light breeze. The instrument consists of two connected hemispheres, having distinct ‘tone fields’, each contributing a different pitch when struck. The Hang Drum can be played while seated, with the instrument resting comfortably on the player’s lap. There is an almost meditative quality to the sound it produces, serenely yet steadily engaging the listener’s attention.
Kora – West Africa, the harp-lute or African guitar
A staple in West African music, the Kora is a stringed instrument that combines features of the harp and the lute. Traditionally made from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin, it is equipped with a hardwood neck that extends to two handles. The Kora typically features 21 strings, creating a unique sound which sets the backbone for West African Griot music. Ara Dinkjian, a well-known Armenian oudist describes the Kora as the “African guitar,” revealing the universality of sound across cultures and continents.
Hardanger Fiddle – Norway, the Viking violin
This is not your average fiddle. Originally from the mountainous region of Hardanger in Norway, this fiddle possesses the power of a violin and the depth of a drone instrument, echoing the stories of Nordic folklore with every strum. The fiddle boasts an intricate design, with a dragon or a lion head usually adorning its upper end, and has a significantly flatter bridge than a traditional violin. The Hardanger fiddle is sometimes called the “Viking violin” not only for its origin but also for the brave and bold tunes it produces, inspiring visions of epic Viking tales.
Balafon – Sub-Saharan Africa, the wooden ancestor of Xylophone
The Balafon, often considered the ancient predecessor of the xylophone, has been a feature of Sub-Saharan African cultures for almost a thousand years. This exotic percussion instrument consists of wooden bars, each producing a different note when struck with a mallet, and gourd resonators beneath each bar that amplify and sustain the sound. Traditionally, the Balafon is played during important events such as religious ceremonies, court events, or festivals, filling the air with its vibrant, rhythmic, and lively music.
Jal Tarang – India, the wave of music
The Jal Tarang, which literally translates to “wave of music,” is unique among percussion instruments. It consists of a set of ceramic or metal bowls filled with varying levels of water, which are then hit with small wooden sticks. The level of water in each bowl dictates the pitch: more water results in a lower pitch, while less water yields a higher pitch. Rarely seen or heard outside of classical Indian music, the Jal Tarang creates melodies that are as flowing and spontaneous as they are carefully calculated – a poetic juxtaposition that mirrors the larger world of music.
In every corner of the world, there exists an instrument unique to that region, waiting to be discovered, waiting to let loose its melody and enrich our sonic experience. The hidden gems featured on this list are just a few examples of the beautiful richness of global music culture. Each one tells a different story, painted with different colors but together contributing to the splendid mosaic of world music. They remind us that music is a universal language, a shared experience that transcends geographic, cultural, and temporal barriers, binding us in its enchanting melody.
What is the origin of the Hang Drum?
The Hang Drum was invented in the year 2000 by Swiss musicians Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer, who founded the company PANArt. Inspired by traditional steelpan drums and other percussion instruments, they developed the Hang Drum as a unique instrument with its own distinct sound.
How is the Kora played?
The Kora is usually played while seated, with the player using both hands to pluck the strings. The thumbs and index fingers are used to create melodies on the strings, while the other fingers are used to manipulate the strings to create rhythmic accompaniment. The player’s hands move in a fluid and intricate manner, creating beautiful and complex melodies.
Can the Hardanger Fiddle be played like a regular violin?
Yes, the Hardanger Fiddle can be played using the same techniques as a regular violin. However, due to its flatter bridge and additional sympathetic strings, it is capable of producing a unique and rich sound that is distinct from a traditional violin.
How is the Balafon tuned?
The Balafon is tuned by adjusting the length of the wooden bars. The longer the bar, the lower the pitch, and vice versa. During the tuning process, the player will strike each bar and make adjustments until the desired pitch is achieved.
Can anyone play the Jal Tarang?
While anyone can learn to play the Jal Tarang with practice and dedication, it is a relatively complex instrument to master. The player must have a good sense of rhythm, as well as an understanding of how the water levels in each bowl affect the pitch. It requires skill and patience to produce melodic and harmonious sounds on the Jal Tarang.