And the Homemade Instruments Movement
Modern culture is sadly still mostly Anglo-Saxon oriented, and music is no exception to the rule. But outside of Europe and the US is a whole world of strange and wonderful music begging to be discovered by the adventurous explorer, a mouse click away.
One of my happy internet discoveries is Mexico City’s “Orquesta Basura”, a five-piece who play a mixture of trad jazz and Mexican folk. Not super interesting, you might think. But their name translates literally to “Garbage Orchestra”, and what puts this ensemble apart is that ALL their instruments have been made from recycled materials. Orquesta Basura play a guitar made from a tennis racket, an upright bass made from a PVC tube, a drum kit put together from a collection of buckets, pots and pans, a kind of hybrid trumpet/kazoo made from tubing, a plastic horn and a hard hat. Toy instruments also feature prominently. Orquesta Basura look pretty amazing in pictures and videos, banging away on the weirdest collection of homemade instruments you’ve ever seen.
But if you think this is just a novelty, think again. Orquesta Basura can actually play their bizarre instruments, and how. The playing is super tight, with some pretty virtuoso solos thrown in. The style is eclectic, with elements of East European gypsy music, South American folk songs and ’20s and ’30s Dixieland style jazz. Their newest album “Desecho en Mexico” includes songs in the traditional sense as well as short, more experimental interludes, featuring spoken word and various quirky sounds from the band’s vast arsenal of noise making implements, with echoes of John Cage and Harry Partch (about whom more later). The Orquesta Basura website alone is worth a visit, featuring beautiful detailed drawings of their homemade instruments. The band enjoy considerable success in their home country, playing at festivals and appearing on popular TV shows.
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It turns out that there is a little bit of a movement going on of homemade instruments, even though much of it is happening below the radar, often in countries thought of as Third World. “Sonidas de la Tierra” is a non-profit organization based in Paraguay that uses music to reach and educate at risk youth, young people who grow up in complete poverty, with few options, often in remote rural areas. Their program “Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados” fits perfectly with the “Orquesta Basura” philosophy. Just like the Mexico City group, the organization collects garbage and turns it into fully functional instruments, fit for playing Bach sonatas. So an oil can becomes the body of a cello, a fork becomes the bridge for a violin, and bottle caps become valves for a saxophone. The Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados has evolved into both an instrument making and music program, turning young impoverished people into accomplished musicians and offering them a way out of debilitating poverty. The orchestra has toured Europe and the US, and has been the object of a touching documentary “La Armonía del Vertedero” (“Landfill Harmonic”) in which various participants talk about the positive changes affected in their communities by the program.
Of course, at one point in time all instruments were homemade. Wood, animal skin, brass, rope, have been fashioned into musical instruments ever since people were people. It’s only since the industrial revolution and the mass production of goods that musical instruments, ironically, became unavailable to some who might otherwise have the talent and willingness to play music. It’s been said that the birth of jazz, or at least the African-American marching band tradition that eventually became jazz, was made possible because of the second-hand military band instruments that were widely available in pawn shops after the Civil War. Likewise the origins of hip hop are presumed to be directly related to the high cost of musical instruments for inner city youth, limiting their creative outlets to what was at hand, namely, boomboxes, turntables, cheap microphones and drum machines. Thus a new music style was born that would take the world by storm. But economics played a crucial role in both instances.
Modern music pioneer John Cage wrote a “Suite for toy piano”, but the godfather of DIY instruments is without a doubt the reclusive iconoclast Harry Partch. Partch (1902-1974) started out as a pianist and classical composer, and lived as a hobo during the Great Depression. Early on in life Partch rejected the system of intonation known as equal temperament that was then dominant in the West. He instead became interested in just intonation, a tuning system based on the natural overtones of musical pitches, which offered him a much more elaborate system of musical scales and semi-tones. His ideas led him to build his own instruments, for which he wrote pieces based on his new musical theories.
Partch created his own musical universe, something not very many composers ever achieved before or since. He built keyboards, stringed and tuned percussion instruments that were as strange and otherworldly as the music he wrote for them. Harry Partch stands alone in music history as a unique figure, although he has been quoted as an influence by Tom Waits, and has without a doubt vastly expanded the vocabulary of modern music. There’s not much of Harry Partch’s theories to be heard in the music of the modern DIY instrument movement, but Partch’s spirit of adventure is still hovering somewhere in the background.
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News of homemade instrument groups is coming from different corners of the world: Colombia has “Latinlatas” or “Latin Tins”, Italy has “Capone & BungtBangt Int.” with tuned percussion made from PVC tubes and a broomstick with a rubber band turned into a distorted guitar. YouTube has hundreds of videos about homemade instruments, from the quaint to the absurd and surreal. And of course many are familiar with the Blue Man Group and the musical Stomp!, both of whom used instruments made of found and recycled materials. Arts and crafts hobby, artistic strategy, political statement or all of the above — homemade instruments are here to stay.
Sonidas de la Tierra is continuing down the recycled instruments path. A recent program is the H2O Orquesta, an orchestra of young musicians playing instruments made out of water related objects such as plastic bottles. It may seem like a gimmick but projects like the H2O Orquesta draw attention to crucial environmental issues like water rights, as well as economic justice and the healing power of music, in a very creative and innovative way.
Homemade instruments have gone from gimmick and brainchild of an often misunderstood and under-appreciated musical genius to a worldwide phenomenon, a unique and wonderful celebration of the power of music that ties future to past, bridges cultural and socio-economic differences, and draws our attention to the very issues that will define the future of mankind. In this way, the homemade instrument movement is bringing people together the way only music can, pointing the way to a more holistic and just future for all of us.