In Phoenix for a meeting last week, I had a free afternoon and felt the urge to see some bones. So where could I go? Sure, Arizona has lots of fossils scattered in remote spots, but I just had a few hours, which I blissfully filled at the Musical Instrument Museum. I never guessed I would see an armadillo “ukelele.”
The MIM is an amazing place–modern, huge, all-encompassing. I think every country in the world and most of its ethnic groups are represented. When you walk up to each of hundreds of displays, earphones supply short audio clips and flat screen monitors provide visuals. Together, they illuminate technique, rhythm, and tones and are often accompanied by dance steps and song that a particular instrument inspires.
Sure, wood or metal constitute the principal material for many of the instruments in the vast collection, but the MIM does not disappoint boneheads. I have divided my osseous discoveries into four categories.
The first is where bone plays a supporting role–mainly functional parts that serve other, primary materials. Here are three examples. Yes, there are bagpipes in Croatia. I learned that they have been played for at least 1000 years across Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.
The second category is bone as ornamentation. Its pale color provides a nice contrast to wood, and bone’s durability complements the main material.
In the next category bone is an integral part of the instrument. Armadillo armor IS bone, and here it makes a resonator. Cow bone constitutes a major structural portion of the other two depicted string instruments.
Finally and the best: bone IS the instrument, either percussion or wind. Depicted on the left, the “bone scraper” is worn on the chest and played with castanets. In the middle, the two rib bones are held loosely between the fingers and clacked together, a precursor to playing the spoons. Deer antlers create rhythm against the tortoise shell. The horse jaw is a dual purpose instrument. The teeth can be stroked with the nail; or if one holds the narrow part of the jaw with one hand and uses the other to gently slap the wide part, the jaw hums and the teeth rattle. (I tried it in the gift shop.)
It was likely only minutes after ancient man started banging skeletal parts together that other band members began blowing into hollow bones. Flutes are pretty obvious. Perhaps less so is the custom of Tibetan monks using human thigh bones as trumpets. I will cover that topic in a separate post next week.
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