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Since earliest times clay has been used to make musical instruments, many of which originated as domestic pots, but their use changed when sound producing properties were discovered. Others were clay imitations of instruments made in other materials, while still more began life purely as ceramic musical instruments.
Whistles and flutes are the most numerous of all ceramic instruments. Globular flutes are found all over South America (the area richest in ceramic instruments) either imitating objects such as conch shells and deer skulls or in non-representational shapes more like modern ocarinas (fig. 1). The Ancient Chinese also had similar flutes called 'hsuan' with up to eight finger holes. This type is cross blown, but many have an airduct which directs the breath against a sharp edge producing the note automatically much like a pea~whistle. The South American whistling jars or 'silbador' are like this, consisting of connecting pots with a spout at the end of one pot and the whistle mechanism at the end of another.
They may have been partly filled with water and rocked, with changes in level pushing air over the whistle suggesting that they were functional bottles with an amusing way of venting, but it is more likely that they were for blowing as the note is clearer and louder and often has a second note when overblown. The earliest type has the whistle enclosed and dates from 500 A.D. Fig.2 show a Chimu ' blackware' parrot bottle with slits in the beak which act as stops, raising the note by a fifth. Fig.3 shows the later 'exposed' type with the whistle cavity visible just above the monkey's head on the handle. The number of chambers has no effect on the sound which is a very clear high note. Magical significance may well have been attached to a creature on a pot making a noise.
Most widespread of the globular flutes are those with an airduct and stops. Zoomorphic examples are known from Mexico and Malaya but most are bird shaped.
These are known in Java, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Britain, Mexico and Guatemala, while a fine T'ang dynasty Chinese example can be seen in the Horniman Museum, Forest Hill, London. These generally have one or two finger holes giving the familiar cuckoo sound, and are blown through the tail. European ones are usually bare clay with crude enamel decoration. Fig.4 from Sweden actually has eight holes of equal size making the intervals between notes the same, the scale inaccurate and the instrument a toy.
The ocarina or 'little goose' was developed by Donati in Italy in 1860. It has up to ten holes and is egg-shaped with a protruding airduct. They are made in sizes from soprano to bass and some even have tuning slides (Fig.5). Despite its degree of sophistication and its early popularity the ocarina is now a toy found alongside kazoos, tin whistles and jews harps. Modern European examples look like abstracted bird shapes, perhaps due to Islamic influence (see Fig.8).
'Nightingale' is the generic name for water whistles of which the 'botijito' from Spain, the 'rossignol', 'sifflet a can', and 'vase sifleur' from France and the Turkish 'bu1bul testisi' and 'bulbul ibrigi' are examples. The Turkish type have the form of functional pots (Fig.7) but are only whistles, the spout containing the whistle. When the vessel is filled to part way up the spout and blown, a chirruping effect is produced. They are either slipped and glazed or just plain and unglazed, and again like the ocarina, could be imagined as an abstracted bird shape.
There are fewer tubular flutes made of clay, nearly all are South American and none are blown transversely. The most common called the 'quena', 'kena' or 'quechua' is a notched flute which was probably copied from gourd ones. It is held like a recorder but blown like a flute. Beaked flutes from Mexico all have four finger holes and a flared bell which adds nothing to the sound. This Aztec flute (see Fig.8), also known as 'pito', 'tlantquiquitl', 'tlapiztalli' and 'cocoloctli' was played with one hand while playing a small drum with the other, very much like the European pipe and tabor common at the same time, but no connection is apparent.
Clay panpipes are unique to South America. They would be made by pressing clay onto a cane core and joining a number together of different lengths to give different notes. The blowhole is often elliptical which may make sounding easier and most examples have red slip painted on one half and gray or chocolate slip on the other. A set has between two and four tubes, but only half of the required notes, so would be played with another complimentary set. Closed tubes could be tuned with small amounts of water, but this is not the case with open ended sets which are incidentally an octave higher. Despite the great number of reed panpipes in the Far East, it seems that this simple instrument was an independent invention in South America and not received by contact.
Compared with flutes, clay trumpets are small in number, although quite widely distributed in South America, India, Western Europe and parts of Africa. The first trumpets were probably conch shells, so it is not surprising that clay imitations are found in South America, such as the 'potuto' from Peru. The Horniman Museum has a red and white marbled clay Portuguese trumpet which is obviously copied from a metal instrument, although some coiled trumpets may well have derived from animal horns, coiled shells or simply a desire to compact a greater length of tube into a small space. Peru had long straight trumpets called 'pungacuqua' or 'puuaqua' which were up to five feet long and were always blown in pairs, as were the 'botuto' from around the Orinoco (see Fig.9). One had three globular swellings, the other two. These trumpets were three or four feet in length and must have required huge kilns, and considerable breath to sound them!
Neolithic kettledrums are so like cooking pots they must have started with a domestic use. Kettledrums are still made of clay in the Islamic world, while in India the 'tabla' are paired kettledrums of which one is pottery. Many African kettledrums are developed from bowls or jars. The 'intambula' from the Swazi of South Africa only becomes a drum when one man holds a skin over it, while another man beats it: Kettledrums are tunable, unlike open-ended drums and are thought to have been a separate development. However, goblet drums are also associated with the spread of Islam bearing very similar names from the Moroccan 'darabuka' to the Turkish 'darbuka' Some are decorated in Islamic abstracts (see Fig.10), while the Turkish ones have slip layers which are allowed to run and marble. The latter are salt-glazed in wood-fired kilns, after which a skin is glued on. The potters make these drums as part of their normal range and they will repair old skins. Very similar drums are found as far afield as Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, and in South Africa the Sotho use goblet drums of unfired clay now as a replacement material for wood which became scarce.
Two-headed clay drums are rare except in some Indian village music, and finally, shallow frame drums are only found in North Africa, looking like tambourines without bells.
With drums, the vibration of the skin produces the sound, so there is no particular reason to have the body made of clay, but these instruments have become traditional and this alone must account for their construction. The same applies to the friction drum or 'Rommel' pot which works by having a stick or cord fixed to the drum skin: the former being rubbed and the vibrations caused exciting the latter (Fig. 11). As with other drums, water is sometimes used to deepen the sound, perhaps explaining its local names of 'village leopard' in Congo, and 'bull' in Europe. Franz Hals engraved the 'Man with the Rommelpot' and Jan Molenaer painted 'Two Boys And A Girl Making Music (dated 1609/10) both showing ceramic friction drums made from what look like domestic jugs.
Clay rattles are quite common in South America, probably being copies of gourd rattles, while functional pots sometimes have either a false bottom or hollow legs containing pellets. Some have a rattlesnake modeled around them suggesting the sound produced and are highly decorated, seemingly for ceremonial use.
The Romans had pottery clappers called 'crotalum', but they cannot have lasted long and very few have been found.
Bells made in clay are usually 'resting bells': a series of bowls which may be of different sizes or containing varying amounts of water. The earliest mentions are from Turkestan and China, both in the Seventh Century. Individual examples are highly developed, having up to three octaves; the 'jaltarang' containing water, but the 'kastratrang' is played dry except when rubbing the rims.
Another percussion effect is achieved by alternately trapping and releasing air, causing the body of a pot to vibrate. The Ibo of Nigeria use coiled spherical water pots in this way. They are swilled out with water after firing, which increases resonance. A similar pot is played with great skill in South India by pushing it against the stomach.
In Roman theatres, large pots were used to resonate and amplify the actors' voices. Also, walls, in Byzantine churches were sometimes made from large interlocking jars, making them lighter than those of conventional construction, and the pots would resonate at the pitch of the sung chants!
There are really too many ceramic musical instruments to mention them all, but the main types have been discussed here along with a few off-beat examples to give some impression of the range of the subject.
© Copyright Richard Baxter 2001
:: Richard Baxter pottery studio and gallery is based in the picturesque fishing village of Leigh on Sea, Essex ::
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