5 national instruments from around the world

Every area has its own unique ‘sound’. Scotland sounds like a bag pipe, Australia sounds like a didgeridoo and Polynesia sounds like a nose-flute. We thought we would investigate further. WARNING: Listening to some of these clips may induce frenzied holiday purchasing!

Steelpan | Trinidad and Tobago

Is this not the happiest sound in the world?! It’s pretty hard to not at least do a little wiggle when listening to a steel band! And before you ask, it IS called a steelpan, not a steeldrum. Although it is made from a steel drum.

The pan was invented in the 30s, which makes it a relatively new instrument – compared to the drum, flute, violin etc which have all been around for hundreds of years. However steelpans really took off in the 1940s during the war. The American bases in Trinidad meant there was a greater need for oil and the 55 gallon waste drums started being used for percussion. It was soon discovered that if the flat tops of the drums were indented, different notes could be produced. And by varying the length of the drum’s ‘skirt’ (by cutting an amount off of the barrel) scales could be made- enabling bass pans and treble pans to be created! Before long whole bands were formed, the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force even have their own steel orchestra! Check out the video – imagine our forces doing this!

Marimba | Mexico

I defy you not to start humming ‘Sway’ after reading this… “When marimba rhythms start to play…”

I will confess, that despite singing along to this song for years, I didn’t actually know what a marimba was. Well it’s a big Mexican xylophone of sorts. Traditionally the key bars are made from Honduras rosewood as it’s very hard but for outdoor players (street performers, marching bands etc) the bars can be made out of synthetic materials to prevent the wood warping due to wet or humid weather.

It has a nice wobbly/buzzy kind of sound which is created by the use of resonators under the bars. These are traditionally made from gourdes. That’s right, pumpkins and such the like. Weird huh! However nowadays Mexicans are more likely to drill a hole, in their more sophisticated wooden resonators, and cover it with sheep skin to give their performance that extra buzz!

Bouzouki | Greece

I can’t actually listen to this YouTube clip. It reminds me so much of holidays I start to salivate for a stuffed vine leaf and imagine myself either in a restaurant by the sea feeding a stray cat, or on an airport transfer, tired yet excited for the holiday to come. Oh the smell of the heat! And fig trees! Sand between my toes! Sticky sun lotion, Feta cheese with orgegano… I digress.

The Bouzouki is a type of long-necked lute. Its origins are in Turkey but it is in Greece that it really advanced and that it was was taken to heart. Bouzouki-like instruments have been around since Ancient Greek times, so the fact their sound is still prevalent now says something about their popularity! These instruments are carefully crafted, and sometimes their makers even set their sights on a young tree years before they use it to make their instrument!

Cajon | Peru

No, it’s not just a box! The Peruvian Cajon is a box-like drum played whilst sitting upon it. The drum found its way to Peru via the slaves of Central and West Africa in the 18th century. There are two ideas as to how these unusually shaped drums came about; one is that the slaves, missing their boxy musical instruments from Africa, found what was close to hand- cod-fish shipping crates- and developed them. The other theory centres around the Spanish colonial ban on music in mainly African areas (how cruel). To avoid their instruments being taken away from them, the slaves used items that could be disguised as seats or stools, or would sometimes even take a draw out of a dresser!

As time went on, and the ban was lifted, the Cajon became more sophisticated. Nowadays, it has rubber feet, screws at the top to adjust the sound, and some even have guitar strings to give a rattley sort of sound. Best box ever, right?

Alphorn | Switzerland

Although I had heard of an alphorn, I’d never really thought about them before… they are HUGE! About 12 feet on average. Nor had I heard one being played, not a big fan of the Sound of Music you see. It really is an entrancing, impressive sound.

Use of the Alphorn in Switzerland goes back nearly two thousand years and it was originally used to signal the start of daily activities on the mountains by shepherds and cowherds. For example ‘It’s time to be milked now!’ to the cows and ‘Bed down now’ to the sheep. Also shepherds would play simplistic tunes to each other over the valleys as a way to say ‘Everything is ok over here.’ There were even melodies calling people to council meetings, and men to war. These melodies were passed down through generations.

It is the conical bore of the instrument that allows the sound to travel so far, over hills and mountains. Although the horns worked really well as a form of communication… a mobile phone works better. Let’s be honest. So nowadays, the alphorn is merely played for pleasure!

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About Lizzie Brooks

Lizzie Brooks

The most beautiful place I have been (so far!) has been Norway. Coming in to land in Oslo was like coming in to land in a fairytale; pine trees that looked like velvet amongst frozen fjords, the occasional wisp of smoke coming up from a little yellow or red house within the trees. Beautiful!

I kind of expected to see a Moomin emerging (but they are from Finland, of course).

Lizzie works in our marketing team

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