The Zimbabwean Mbira
The mbira is a deceptively plain type of thumb piano that is essential to understanding the culture and lives of the people of Zimbabwe.
The concept is simple: around 28 metal keys are mounted on a wooden board and plucked with the right forefinger and both thumbs. Slightly longer nails are preferable, and callouses are inevitable. Typically, a rattling, buzzing noise is produced by stringing bottle caps or shells to the bottom of the board. To amplify the sound, players hold the mbira inside a gourd while playing.
The mbira is an extremely spiritual instrument, and is used in many ceremonies in Shona life. Among other things, it’s believed to be a means of communication with the dead, a way to cure illness, and even give the musician power over the weather.
Don’t be fooled by the mbira’s simple appearance; listening to a master give an mbira performance is an emotional experience that moves many to tears.
The Zadar Sea Organ
This instrument is man-made, but nature is the performer. Designed by Nikola Bašić, the organ stretches along the coast of Zadar, Croatia, a solution to the enourmous concrete wall that dominated the beach of the ravaged city after World War II.
All that is visible is hundreds of feet of white marble stairs that lead into the ocean. But beneath runs a set of pipes that resonate in different harmonized pitches thanks to the compression and decompression created by the wind and water. This instrument functions like just like a pipe organ played by the breeze and the sea, creating truly organic music.
The Pikasso Guitar
Keeping a regular guitar in tune can be tricky enough. But what about tuning a guitar with 42 strings?
Created by Linda Manzer, the aptly named Pikasso harp guitar gives the fingers (and the brain) a workout with more than eight times the regular amount of strings stretched over three necks.
Who better to demonstrate the Pikasso’s capabilities than the legendary Pat Metheny:
The Awesome Power of Odaiko
With groups like Kodo gracing more and more western countries with their performances, word about the ancient Japanese art of Taiko drumming is spreading. If you’ve seen a Taiko performance, you might remember that one drum. You know. The really, really big one they use near the end of the show.
In fact, the ōdaiko may very well be the largest drum in the world. Even more incredibly, true ōdaiko are carved from a single piece of wood, typically from a special type of tree that is hundreds of years old. While groups like Kodo usually include the ōdaiko in performances, the largest are too heavy to move and remain permanently in the temples where they were built.
The Steel Drum
Out of all the instruments on this list, the steel drum is probably the most well-known. However, it’s incredibly misunderstood, and as someone who is fairly obsessed with this beautiful instrument, I thought I’d take this opportunity to clear a few things up.
The steel drum, or “pan”, while highly associated with Jamaica and other cruise destination islands, was invented by the people of Trinidad and Tobago. The country lives and breathes pan; I can’t think of another nation that prominently features a musical instrument on their currency.
Every year Trinidad sees dozens of steel band contests and festivals, the most famous of which is Panorama. This highly anticipated competition takes place over the weeks leading up to Carnival and pits dozens of bands, each made up of over 100 members, against each other for the title of Grand Champion.
Despite the surprisingly bright, loud sound, the steel drum isn’t “plugged in.” It’s actually the only family of acoustic instruments to have been invented in the 20th century. Just like string instruments in an orchestra, there are several voices of pans, including tenor, cello, and bass. In fact, full Trinidadian steel bands often perform arrangements of classical symphonic tunes, from Beethoven to Mozart.
Barbed Wire Fences
Pretty much anything can be a musical instrument…although that doesn’t make it desirable to listen to. But the latter isn’t the case with violinist Jon Rose.
Jon has spent the last twenty six years playing and recording barbed wire fences around the world. According to his website, Jon sees fences as “giant musical string instruments covering a continent.” His lastest project, Great Fences of Australia, has taken him and fellow violinist Hollis Taylor around 35,000 km of the country, recording fences and documenting the history and lives of the people involved in building and maintaining them.
What did I miss? Share the unusual or memorable instruments you’ve come across in the comments section below!
Interested in more about Zimbabwe? Check out Eva Holland’s piece about the politics and the people there.