A few years back, while giving a presentation on homemade musical instruments at the University of Washington, Dr. Craig Woodson created a masenqo—a single stringed violin from Ethiopia—out of dental floss, a Styrofoam box, a plastic tube, and some chopsticks. “There was an Ethiopian woman in the audience, and she got up and walked out of the room,” he remembers. “I thought, oh my gosh, I’ve insulted this woman! But then she came back in and her eyes were wet with tears, and she said to me, ‘I had no idea when you started to play that very simple instrument, that it would take me home.’”
Woodson says that he gets that kind of reaction all the time. He’s traveled across the US, Europe, Africa, Iraq, and Indonesia, studying instruments from different cultures, finding ways to make simpler versions, and sharing his creations with people looking for a new way of making music.
Although for many, homemade instruments might bring back memories of wrapping rubber bands around an empty tissue box as a kid, Woodson’s creations are, not only easy-to-make, but also high-quality. They show that instrument making can, and should be, for adults too.
Back to Basics
“A musical instrument is simply a tool that makes sound,” says Woodson. “The musical part comes from the performer.” But the trouble is, many people forget about their ability to create music as they get older. Even if they continue to play into adulthood, they play the music that they’re “supposed” to—like Beethoven or The Beatles—and not usually music they’ve created themselves.
Woodson believes that homemade instruments help to revive those dormant creative skills in adults. “Making a simple instrument takes us back to the origin of music,” he explains. “It takes us back to a time when there were no audiences, per se—just people making their own instruments and inventing their own music.”
Think of it this way: if you pick up a guitar for the first time, you’re probably going to want to play songs that you’ve heard before, the way that you’ve heard them played. But if you pick up an unfamiliar instrument such as the kani, a five-stringed stomach harp from Liberia, you have no preconceptions of how music on that instrument should sound, and will be more encouraged to improvise.
Best of all, while many authentic world instruments are difficult or expensive to acquire, Woodson’s versions are easy to come by. All of his instruments require only common household items: in the case of the kani, a wooden coat hanger, fishing line, and a plastic funnel.
Even though Woodson’s instruments are made out of everyday materials, he’s repeatedly witnessed the benefits that both children and adults receive from creating and playing them. Besides simply being a fun activity, working with homemade world instruments opens up access to the music of other cultures, through what Woodson calls “comprehensive improvisation.” He explains that, when people let their own improvisations flow, they often come up with the type of music that’s actually “correct” from a cultural standpoint. It seems that the spirit of the music is in the instruments.
“If you take a bit of care to make the instrument sound, and even look, as good as possible, then it really works,” says Woodson. “My instruments are approximations of the real thing, but they sound and feel close enough that they can open people up to a whole new world of music.”
Following, check out two of the simple instruments you can make and start playing today. For additional instruments to make, or for information on workshops Woodson will hold nationwide this summer, visit www.ethnomusicinc.com and www.rootsofrhythm.net.
Bongo Drums (Americas/Middle East)
Empty 5” diameter x 7” tall can
Empty 4” diameter x 7” tall can
Two chopsticks or dowels
Take off the lids and clean out both cans. Wrap an “anchor” piece of tape around the top (drumhead) of each can.
Pull pieces of tape across the open end of each can, beginning and ending on the “anchor” piece. Begin with a strip across the diameter, then move out parallel from that on each side (three to four pieces total). Then, repeat the same sequence from the opposite direction, making a crisscross. Pull the tape very tightly and cover the entire top of the can.
When the individual drums are both finished, tape them together around the middle.
Use your hands to play the drum, or make a drum beater by wrapping tape around the end of each chopstick or dowel.
Six wood blocks: 1” tall x 2” wide x 9”, 10”, 11”, 12”, 13”, and 14” long
Two dowels to use as mallets
Sand all six pieces of wood, especially the edges and corners.
The lengths of the blocks should give you the pitches E, F, A, B, C, and D, in that order, from longest to shortest. If you would like to raise the pitch, cut a small bit off the end of the block. To lower the pitch, make a shallow cut across the middle on the underside of the block. The deeper the cut, the lower the pitch.
Mark a line one-fifth of the way from the ends of each block.
Lay the bars side-by-side, 1 1/2 inches apart.
Lay strapping tape down over the wood, centering on the marked lines.
Curve the tape around to make the two ends meet at the small end of the instrument.
Press the tape firmly into the wood.
Gently lift the blocks together, turning the instrument over.
Tape the opposite side in the same way, and then pinch the tape together between each piece of wood.
Build Your Own Cajon
For a more involved project, check out this Make Your Own Cajon kit, from Meinl.