World Music Instruments

Jay Loomis is a graduate student in Ethnomusicology at Brown University, presently engaged in research on musical instrument collections in museums. Recent presentations at conferences include papers on decolonization, repatriation and archives, ethnographic methods, flamenco performance practices and the cajon (box drum). He is a regular contributor to the WMI newsletter and website on matters of  traditional instruments and music. He has led a flute-making workshop organized by World Music Institute as one of their WMI PLUS Experiences at The New School.


Edmar Castaneda’s tight technique makes one harp sound like an ensemble – his right hand plucks and strums, while his left lays out grooving bass lines that drive his music, full of looping, interlocking rhythms and melodies. Although his roots are in Colombia, he’s well known as a jazz musician and one of the few who plays the harp. The arpa llanera is an important element of traditional joropo dance music from South America but in Edmar Castañeda’s hands, this traditional instrument of the plains of Colombia and Venezuela becomes a tool for jazz virtuosity.


Virtuosic! Balla Kouyaté dances while he plays the balafon, a West African xylophone tied to djeli traditions in Mali, where Kouyaté was born. Usually the balafon has about 20 wooden bars but in this video, you can hear how Kouyate deftly draws out melodies and unleashes extraordinary interlocking rhythms from two balafons, tuned so that he can play in any key. The buzzing sound you hear when he strikes the wooden bars comes from the gourd resonators underneath, which have small holes carefully covered by thin membranes, traditionally made of spider egg sacs.


When you hear Dreamers’ Circus play, the Scandinavian folk music trio will surprise you with their thickly textured sound. When you see them perform you’ll recognize two of their instruments right away: the fiddle, played by Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and Nikolaj Busk on the accordion. The third instrument, in Ale Carr’s hands, might be harder to place: it’s a round bodied, guitar-like instrument called a cittern — it’s similar to a bass mandolin or the bouzouki, with roots that reach back to medieval Europe. Carr steadily strums his ten stringed cittern, which provides the rhythmic drive to Dreamers’ Circus foot tapping music.


In this video Abigail Washburne and Wu Fei play a traditional Appalachian tune melding the sounds of the banjo and the Chinese zither called the guzheng – and they sing this bluegrass favorite in English and Mandarin. Washburne keeps the driving rhythm steady on the banjo while Wu Fei shows off the bluegrass possibilities for her Chinese stringed instrument by playing glissando runs and quick arpeggios, while maintaining the upbeat sound of the walking bass in her left hand. You might notice the attached finger picks on some of Wu Fei’s fingers, which allow her to produce the strong, crisp tones that mix so well with Washburn’s strumming.


The hurdy-gurdy is a feat of medieval engineering that has stood the test of time, as Nicolas Boulerice of Vent du Nord demonstrates every time he plays this fascinating stringed instrument. The performer “bows” the strings by turning a crank, which spins a wheel that sets the strings in motion to create the hurdy-gurdy signature sound. While several strings make melodies, others maintain a constant drone. In this video you can see how Boulerice uses his right hand to steadily and rhythmically turn the crank, while his left hand plays the keyboard on the neck of the instrument to change the pitches.


The sounds of the kantele, the national instrument of Finland, can surprise you. This plucked, steel-stringed instrument rings out almost as quiet as a whisper – then unexpectedly, the strumming comes in and the quiet tune becomes a forceful ballad. In this song by Kardemimmit, Huoleton rakkaus, the band members play kantele of different sizes – the largest plucked zither is on the table and lays out bass lines, chords, and the catchy opening melody. The smaller instruments hang comfortably at the musicians’ waists where their fingers skillfully pluck individual strings to create interlocking phrases that accompany the tight vocal harmonies in their song. 


West African storyteller-musicians called Griots have been playing the kora for hundreds of years. The kora is a large, spherical-shaped instrument – similar to a lute – made of a dried calabash (squash) that has been cut in half. A kora normally has 20-21 strings that run along a single neck. Keita, however, plays a double-necked kora with over 40 strings, which gives him greater versatility to participate in cross-cultural collaborations such as his work with Omar Sosa and Catrin Finch (seen here). 


In this song, Yumi Kurosawa explores many of the sonic possibilities offered by the Japanese zither, the koto. Each of the strings of this ancient instrument has a moveable bridge for tuning which also allows for bending notes; while plucking a string with her right hand, Kurosawa presses the same string to the left of the bridge to bend the pitch. She wears three finger picks on her right hand to create crisp, ringing melodic lines while her left hand lays out accompanying bass patterns on the low strings. The intricate plucking patterns and exuberant strumming techniques are reminiscent of landscapes, wind, and rushing waters. 

MORIN HUUR (“Horse-head Fiddle”) – ANDA UNION

Two strings and so many sounds! The morin huur, or the Mongolian “horse-head fiddle,” figures prominently in the music of Anda Union. In the piece  “Galloping Horses”, the musicians playing this instrument showcase its energetic, rhythmic quality and its capacity to imitate horse sounds. At the same time, the morin huur is known for its ability to express mournful feelings of longing and loss, which is not surprising if you consider some of the origin stories of this amazing instrument— common lore recounts how a boy made the first morin huur from the remains of his beloved, unjustly slain horse. 


You need extraordinary strength and dexterity to play Indian tabla drums with a constant, steady beat at breakneck speeds— and Zakir Hussain makes it look so easy. The instrument’s distinct, pitter-patter, ringing percussive sound plays an important role in ensembles as an accompaniment to melodic instruments like the sitar, the bansuri flute, violin, and vocal performances. At the same time, virtuosic percussionists can wow any audience with a carefully constructed, skillfully improvised tabla solo. In this video Zakir Hussain maintains a clear and steady pulse while weaving polyrhythms throughout, his fingers moving so fast you can hardly see them.