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MatthewVanitas

Brainstorming Concertina Projects In In West Africa

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I'm going to be living in Liberia, West Africa, for maybe around a year or so. After this maybe going back to Latin America, South Asia, or maybe the company will expand business regionally and I'll be spending some time in Sierra Leone, Ghana, or Nigeria. One of my broad life goals is to be a "patron of the arts" in my own small way, and to that end I've given away interesting folk instruments to performing musicians in various countries to try and get those instruments more exposure, like I've gifted Appalachian dulcimers to several Canadian gigging musicians, and just shipped a Portuguese guitarra (like a big mandolin) to an American professional folksinger who likes strange instruments and alternate tunings.

 

On a wider scale, the one time I really got going, when I was living in Newfoundland I ended up teaching workshops on Appalachian dulcimer for several months, exposing probably 50-100 people to the instrument, plus a few hundred people saw me play gigs on the dulcimer at local pubs. While doing the workshops, I bought the cheapest dulcimers I could find on eBay and shipped them up to that Canadian island way out in the Atlantic, and as I went along sold them to students who took to the instrument, increasing Newfoundland's dulcimer count by about 30 instruments (and I'd bet money there were no more than a dozen dulcimers, largely unused, in the whole province prior to my arrival). So I've had some small successes in spreading my joy for interesting instruments around the world, and I've long intended to try some more ambitious projects when I'm somewhere where people have time on their hands and I have spare cash on hand to try to spur creativity.

 

Since I've been playing concertina more these days, I have some vague intent of doing some concertina-type projects. In Colombia the button accordion is quite popular, so I'd had hopes there of finding an accordion repairman open to unusual commissions, and see if it'd be economical to have him build a run of small square Hayden concertinas, thinking that there are at least a few other Hayden fans in the world who'd spring at the opportunity to have an unusual Duet for a low price. Unfortunately we weren't in Colombia long enough on this hitch for me to try that, though we may get back there.

 

Here in Liberia the average daily wage for a laborer is $5, someone like a plumber or construction foreman might make $15/day. Given that a large part of what makes concertinas pricey is the labor involved, that had be pondering whether I could make use of the labor market here. Either to find a skilled craftsman, provide him a couple sacrificial Stagis to study, detailed photos of various designs of vintage instrument, and see if he could start building some interesting concertinas of better quality than the Chinese, of types not economical to have mass-produced in China, that he could then ship to North America and Europe (plus several for me). In particular, I have a possibly impractical vision of getting a guy set up to make a few dozen tributes to the old Wheatstone Duett square concertina, but in modern Hayden format, and with hybrid reeds (figuring I could buy a crate with enough reeds to make a score of them and carry the box down with me next time I come down from Europe). I'd venture to guess there's got to be at least a couple dozen people in the world who would want such an instrument if they could be made for $500ish to a reasonable quality standard, and with ready-made reeds this seems the kind of thing that was just made by skilled cottage labor 150 years ago. I don't know if this is a completely unrealistic idea, or plausible if I find a craftsman who's good with detailed woodwork, pays close attention to measurements, and can follow instructions.

 

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On the musician end, I had the thought of buying a crate of cheap 20b Anglos from China, having a local craftsman QC and tweak them, and then using them to train a number of local people on concertina to try and get the instrument a toe-hold. Likely by finding folks with time on their hands who could use a music hobby, like kids in an orphanage or the blind. You frequently see blind folks here with a shekere (gourd shell with a loose net of cowrie shells), beating a rhythm and singing for alms, so I'd imagine some of them would enjoy having a different instrument to make them stand out and accompany their singing.

 

At the absolute minimum, I plan to at least get my own concertina out here. I have a 20b plastic-bodied Stagi at my house in Texas and waiting to get US Postal Service access to have it shipped out here via the embassy. And once I get that there are occasional expat jam sessions held at local pubs, so I can do some playing locally, and maybe see about partnering up with a local Liberian guitarist to do some pub gigs. Concertina actually has some history in this region, as Liberia is a former US colony and neighboring Sierra Leone and Ghana were British colonies, so local folks in port towns traditionally played instruments they got from the foreign ships, like banjo, harmonica, and concertina. According to books/articles I've found online, the concertina was among the instruments used to develop the famous Highlife genre of music in West Africa, so getting some going out here would not be unprecedented.

 

 

So I bring my situation and ideas to the group here to see if anyone has any suggestions, or whether folks think concertina is just not the way to go here due to the difficulty of sustaining any concertina tradition in the future without my direct intervention. Would I be smarter just to have some cigar box ukuleles built (or simple box Appalachian dulcimers) and teach kids in an orphanage to play those, and/or get a crate of a hundred tinwhistles and distribute those around to try to spur some musical experimentation in the area? There are some good NGOs here already working with local traditional music, and/or helping local hip hop musicians develop their careers, so I'm looking less to make any big movements, and just find some small ways to cross-fertilize some musical variety into the region.

 

 

Edited by MatthewVanitas

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So I bring my situation and ideas to the group here to see if anyone has any suggestions, or whether folks think concertina is just not the way to go here due to the difficulty of sustaining any concertina tradition in the future without my direct intervention. Would I be smarter just to have some cigar box ukuleles built (or simple box Appalachian dulcimers) and teach kids in an orphanage to play those, and/or get a crate of a hundred tinwhistles and distribute those around to try to spur some musical experimentation in the area? There are some good NGOs here already working with local traditional music, and/or helping local hip hop musicians develop their careers, so I'm looking less to make any big movements, and just find some small ways to cross-fertilize some musical variety into the region.

 

A wonderful sounding concept, but I'm guessing concertinas are ill suited to such a venture because of the cost factor; even a reasonable starter box (a Rochelle/Jackie, Stagi, etc.) is always going to cost more than is practical in a Third World situation. The idea of a crate of Chinese instruments fiddled by a local technician sounds the most practical, and might provide an introduction to music making, but then what? It's unlikely people could progress to better instruments in such an economic environment. And what are the chances of making such instruments playable enough to keep students involved?

 

You mention Appalachian dulcimers; these are very well suited to such a project. Years ago, Andy's Front Hall, a mail order dulcimer emporium (can there even be such a thing?) sold a cardboard dulcimer kit for something like 15 dollars; perfectly playable, sounded not bad. A quick Google search: they're still available from other sources, although more expensive: http://www.harpkit.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=MK&Product_Code=CBDulc&Category_Code=cardboard. Or cardboard banjos: http://www.westmusic.com/b/backyard-music

 

 

It seems to me that the ideal instrument is one that can be supplied, in playable form, for very little money, or one that could be inexpensively crafted by local people (a cigar box guitar?)

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Matthew

 

With all respect, and I really mean that, are you sure that your basic premise is a good idea?

 

My first thought was that it reminded me of the scene in the original Airplane movie where the stewardess is demonstrating Tupperware to a puzzled group of native women. Neo-colonialism?

 

From what Wikipedia tells me, Liberia already has a very rich musical culture, both traditional and modern.

 

Maybe you could think more in terms of learning rather than teaching? Maybe there is a Liberian instrument that you could bring to the West and create a demand for a Liberian instrument?

 

Don.

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It's unlikely people could progress to better instruments in such an economic environment. And what are the chances of making such instruments playable enough to keep students involved?

 

So far as "better instruments", I thought about that, but to one degree would "better" instruments ever have been much present in these parts of Africa? For example, there are two separate concertina traditions in South Africa: a Boer tradition of European-style playing and Zulu-based tradition. As I understand it, at least some of the Boer bought decent quality British instruments, but what kind of quality concertina would be the ones sold at small-town general stores and bought by Zulu mine workers to take home to their villages? Would that quality have been notably better than modern Chinese instruments? Honest question.

 

Kind of like those Hero "toy" melodeons which can be tweaked to be sort of playable: were the cheap German export boxes that dirt-poor rural Cajuns played in Louisiana more like those than a modern artisan-built Cajun accordion? Those Hero toy accordions, by the way, are another instrument I considered trying to get a crate of and see if a local guy could figure out how to QC them.

 

 

Matthew

 

With all respect, and I really mean that, are you sure that your basic premise is a good idea?

 

My first thought was that it reminded me of the scene in the original Airplane movie where the stewardess is demonstrating Tupperware to a puzzled group of native women. Neo-colonialism?

 

From what Wikipedia tells me, Liberia already has a very rich musical culture, both traditional and modern.

 

Maybe you could think more in terms of learning rather than teaching? Maybe there is a Liberian instrument that you could bring to the West and create a demand for a Liberian instrument?

 

You raise a number of good points, Don, but I think the impact I could make is pretty benign. Aside from the fact that I personally don't have the numbers or presence to really damage anything, I also don't have the kind of position to impose a colonial impact. Now, if I were for example running a school and forcing kids to learn piano and punishing them for singing in Kru language, that would be a big problem and the sort of thing that's been harmful in the past. But me exposing people to different music, or gifting some impoverished people some unusual instruments and saying "play something you'd enjoy on this" is more providing a personal catalyst than imposing anything external. Particularly since I can't really *make* anyone do anything they're not inclined to, or even really skew incentives on any large level, as opposed to say if I were funding a recording studio and only giving recording time to guitarists and not to drummers.

 

A lot of the traditional instruments here appear to have died out due to general globalization pressures; there were some really interesting harps here in the past. Though that is also one of my ponderings, whether I could find an inexpensive way to have someone make a batch of electrical Liberian harps and give those to a few studios or music clubs, see if anyone is inspired to make some music with those.

 

I've seen basically no melodic instrumental music in the month I've been here, other than one or two churches that have electronic keyboards, and I saw one guy on the street with an Ovation bass guitar, restrung to an open tuning with regular guitar strings. I've seen a scattering of drummers in the street, some of them tied to ritual performances, and the aforementioned blind beggars who play the shekere while singing. Interestingly, you see the old harps, flutes, and horns in Liberian artwork, and perhaps they survive way out in the bush, but not in an urban area.

 

So far as learning, I definitely do have ambitions to that end as well. The really fascinating local instrument is the "talking drum", a kind of pitched percussion where the note of the drum can be changed by squeezing the tensioning ropes with the arms. I understand there are some folks that teach lessons in town, so that's on my to-do list once I settle in:

 

Video clip showing the tone changing: www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4oQJZ2TEVI

 

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There is an NGO called "Talking Drum" here, a project of the larger Search for Common Ground NGO, and I do intend to get more acquainted with those folks since they do a lot of media projects. I'm not sure what mix of traditional vs modern media they do, which of course brings up the flip-side question of colonialism and music: when is it actually colonialist to try to get people to maintain local traditions when they're interested in newer music? Even without any direct attempt to, say, supplant or denigrate the Liberian harp, if local Liberians are way more interested in playing Casio keyboards or rapping over pre-recorded tracks, is it just a colonial imposition to undercut those popular local musicians by subsidizing someone willing to play harp, if that's largely for foreigners who want to see something exotic and not something Liberians have much interest in? There's no easy answer there, just pointing out how tricky the issue of cultural support vs. imposition vs. appropriation, etc.

 

Not to digress too much, but it is really interesting seeing the tension between the different musical desires here. Modern hip-hop and reggae music have a strong influence here, but then also the desire to make the music their own. Particularly with the Jamaican influence it's an interesting tangle, because a big aspect of traditional reggae was this mythic idealization of Africa as a response to oppression and poverty in Jamaica. But when you're living in a poor neighborhood in Monrovia, it's aspirational to idolize and imitate reggae singers because they're African-descended people who are making music that's internationally respected and admired. So it's like an odd feedback loop of Liberians admiring Jamaicans who pine for Ethiopia...

Edited by MatthewVanitas

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There is some photographic evidence of the type of instruments used i nAfrica, both in Zulu and other traditions:

 

 

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The instruments in the photographs are arguably not top of the range instruments, but then again, if you look at photographs of musicians of the same time frame in Western Europe you will most likely see similar or the same instruments. The top of the range instruments found in the hands who can afford them.

 

Locally made instruments of good quality are perhaps more likely to find their way into the hands of musicians.

 

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As the three-CD set "Planet Squeezebox" makes amply clear, the traditional world music cultures Africa not least, have done wonderful and amazing things with free-reed instruments. If only responsive and playable instruments were bouncing around easy to hand, I'm sure these folks would find all sorts of wonderful things to do with them. Their way. Not your way. . . . Not that I think you'd mind that . . . The challenge in Africa would really be the same challenge we've discussed anywhere, particularly anywhere that large amounts of cash are in short supply. Playable cheap guitars are so much more available than concertinas, unfairly. If ever an instrument was made to be handed out in African orphanages and villages . .. it's the concertina. Fascinating to see things going the other way lately, btw . . I knew it was only a matter of time until Ireland's Nigerian immigrant folks got ahold of fiddles and dancing, and it's happening. They will be placing in the fleadhs before you know it . . .

 

Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle may be that out in the bush these days, everybody wants a smartphone . . . :(

 

Those little square Haydens are dandy . . .

Edited by ceemonster

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There is some photographic evidence of the type of instruments used i nAfrica, both in Zulu and other traditions:

 

 

zulus.jpgmadagas1.jpg

 

The instruments in the photographs are arguably not top of the range instruments, but then again, if you look at photographs of musicians of the same time frame in Western Europe you will most likely see similar or the same instruments. The top of the range instruments found in the hands who can afford them.

 

Locally made instruments of good quality are perhaps more likely to find their way into the hands of musicians.

 

15-1.jpg

For those who haven't heard it, the Kora in the bottom picture is an amazing instrument. It's rustic looks hide the sophisticated music played on it. Just as a thought, a diatonic instrument might be a better choice, given the reduced number of reeds needed for the same range, reducing the cost. Hayden's are great, but the whole point of them is to be ably to play easily in any key. That implies the range needed to actually play in any key, or two full octaves on either side. ( including the overlap on he left side. ). Having instruments mostly made there makes sense to me, since it is both self reliant and matches the local wage scale. Inexpensive not top of the line Italian reeds should be easier to import, and I can't think of anything else needed that a local source couldn't supply. The square format is very workable. ( bellows requires much less work ) I'd start with one of Harold Herrington's old square Anglos as a jumping off point, not the Stagis, which are built to maximise profits, not to play well and last a long time. You don't need riveted actions or other tool and labor intensive processes to make a decent durable instrument. The problem with the cheap imported instruments out there is that the money goes into the factory owners pockets, not not the instruments. Local production is also more likely to cater to local styles and musical needs. If you really wanted to be a patron, get a good music loving craftsman set up making the boxes and then buy his production and start handing them out at schools and to people who are interested. I'd think you might stay away from electric anything. It just adds one more resource requirement, limiting the number of people who can take advantage of it. There are already good cheap electric guitars and keyboards that fill that need.

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I was thinking Haydens initially because I was largely thinking of the export market, and figured Hayden enthusiasts are under-served enough, and unconventional enough, that they might be a few dozen interested in buying even a diatonic Hayden with crude-but-workable craftsmanship (in the old-school cottage sense, not Chinese factory sense) if at moderate price. But thinking on it, Anglo is just so much more common that Angloists open to buying an unusual instrument to play around with still outnumber Haydenists by a large margin. If we made such boxes, I’d imagine they’d be maybe of Stagi playability but with more traditional/durable construction and with more careful attention, though still limited by their production environment.

 

I owned a Herrington in the past; do you think those would be a good model to emulate, if Mr. Herrington’s inheritors weren’t opposed? Or at least a model with similar construction? I’d certainly like to capitalize on existing concertina knowledge since there’s none here, but also don’t want to step on anyone’s toes or come across like we’re making shoddy ripoffs of their product. Though clearly these wouldn’t be in direct competition with the finer instruments, would it help even more to avoid stepping on toes if the project agreed to make only 21b (20b plus a C# chromatic) or 24b Herrington-Edgely system (if the Herrington family and Mr Edgely weren’t opposed) so that they’re even more clearly not trying to horn in on the typical 30b market but are clearly a niche product? I hesitate to say “novelty” since the goal would be acceptable playability, but the target audience would be people that would enjoy something out of the ordinary with an interesting backstory.

 

This is all still extremely theoretical since it depends on me finding someone in Monrovia willing and able to give it a shot. To one degree I’m uncertain because this is a very underdeveloped country just coming out of several (and extremely nasty) civil wars and plagues. But then again, concertinas were made by the thousands by likely illiterate Victorian cottageworkers doing piece-work, so with cheap enough labor and careful attention many things are possible. I’ve seen all kinds of shoddy work in this country, but then again they’re somehow managing to keep the city standing, and thousands of carks, motorbikes, and generators running smoothly, so clearly there’s an underlying layer of resourcefulness to be drawn on.

 

If this project were to move forward, again drawing on the existing concertina community would be key. Not to impose and not to ask for any binding commitment since this is all still very notional, but are there a few folks here with concertina making/playing skills that might be interested in helping figure out a pattern that could be executed locally, and perhaps willing to have the occasional Skype conversation with a local craftsman to discuss the ins-and-outs with him?

 

Along those lines too, I recall that the craftsman who created the modern revived Swedish bagpipe was not at all a musician, but a local furniture-maker with good lathe skills, to whom a ethnomusicologist came with some old museum pieces and asked him to emulate them, and that ended up working out. Along those lines, what sort of craftsman should I seek out to do concertinas? Or, would it maybe be smarter to do it by pieces, find one guy who’s clever at building small detailed woodwork and have him make the bodies and reed beds, a leatherworker who can make bellows, and one last clever guy (a jewelry maker) who can bend wires, install springs, and wax in and file the reeds? Rather than a one-man shop?

 

 

 

Re the electric bit: while overall I agree there’s no need to retread guitar/keyboard since those have enough traction in the world, there are a few exceptions I would make. The Bassa or “belly harp” looks to be totally moribund, and I don’t know that current musical stylings would have much place for it. However, my bosses are friends with the country’s most famous hip-hop artists, and he owns a local club that does shows, so I thought I could have a craftsman make a simple wooden frame emuating the Y-shaped Bassa harp with the belly-rest, put fishline strings on it and a transducer pickup (that amplifies vibration, not magnetic), and gift it to the club.

 

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Maybe meet with an intrigued local rapper and see if he’d want to work up a set with one person playing some backing lines on the electric harp, maybe some other guy on drums, while he raps over it. Again it wouldn’t gain any traction if it’s just something I enjoy that nobody else does, but decent chance some ethnic Bassa rapper would enjoy having an authentic flair to complement his style, and it would certainly be distinctive from the usual rapping over pre-recorded backing tracks. So that’s just one example where I think an electrified instrument could revive a defunct Liberian instrument and also make it compatible with current locally popular music, in the same way that you hear the talking-drum used to back up R&B songs on local albums.

 

 

 

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Not to digress too much, but it is really interesting seeing the tension between the different musical desires here. Modern hip-hop and reggae music have a strong influence here, but then also the desire to make the music their own. Particularly with the Jamaican influence it's an interesting tangle, because a big aspect of traditional reggae was this mythic idealization of Africa as a response to oppression and poverty in Jamaica. But when you're living in a poor neighborhood in Monrovia, it's aspirational to idolize and imitate reggae singers because they're African-descended people who are making music that's internationally respected and admired. So it's like an odd feedback loop of Liberians admiring Jamaicans who pine for Ethiopia...

 

Matthew,

I must admit I share Don Taylor's misgivings about all this. Begging your pardon, it does smack somewhat of the old colonialist idea that "their culture is different from ours, therefore it's not as advanced as ours, therefore we should give them our culture, so that they will be advanced, too."

Only the other evening, I had tangible proof that this premiss - at least in the musical sphere - is false. I heard a Senegalese Griot playing the kora and singing to it. Differnt, yes! But the sound of the kora was comparable to that of a nylon-strung Neo-Celtic harp (and compared well!), and the music that came out of it, in terms of artistic impression and technical brilliance, no less so (and I've heard pretty good Irish harpists!) In some aspects, like rapid articulation, the kora seems to have the edge over the harp, assuming an accomplished player in either case.

 

The question in my mind is, if I had the funds to sponsor music in an African country, would I not prefer to subsidise craftsmen making instruments that have for centuries proved ideal for African music? No need to send money to Europe to buy Italian reeds or European plywood for a kora! The materials, the know-how - and above all, the cultural niche - are all available locally.

 

So hip-hop and reggae have a strong influence in West Africa? So what! They have a strong influence in Europe, too. So the West Africans have the desire to make this music their own? So what! We do that in Europe, too.

 

I would postulate that the difference between traditional and modern music in any country you care to name is that the modern music draws from the traditonal, but is to a greater or lesser extent influenced by foreign music. Or, to put it another way, foreign music is adopted, but at the same time adapted to the local tradition. You don't have to go to Africa to see this happening. Just look at Irish music over the past 100 years. There's nothing Greek about the way a modern Irish musician plays the bouzouki, for instance!

 

However, the point is that the natives of the country you wish to mention adopt the foreign influence of their own free will. They hear it, they like it, and they reckon it would be a good addition to their present musical tradition. They hear other music, perhaps like it, but don't reckon it would suit them, so they leave it be. And in the spirit of our post-colonial age, the decision on whether an influence is suitable or not should be left to the mass of young musicians in that country. On whatever continent that country may be.

 

Cheers,

John

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John, I can't see anything wrong in making plans concerning the instrument one is loving and addicted to, combined with a notion of trying to establish non-industrial production lines... which would all not exclude appreciation of "their" tradition and skills...

 

I rather feel like encouraging you, Matthew, to follow what is in your mind, and wish you success and all thr best - Wolf

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Don,

Very interesting! Lovely to read of this practical, grass-roots help actually taking place.

 

The relevance to this thread is that the instrument that the Canadian left in Zambia was a guitar. And the Headmaster of the school had budgeted for a guitar, but just not been able to procure one. And the old cobbler's borrowed instrument - which he obviously enjoyed plaing - was a guitar. Obviously, there was a common feeling that the guitar is something that Africans can express themselves with - so a donated guitar is going to get used.

 

This is hardly surprising.The guitar has spread from Spain to South America to North America and back to Northern Europe and beyond (including Africa), and everybody plays it his way - irrespective of musical tradition or genre. Also, guitars vary from very expensive to very cheap, from delicate to robust, from acoustic to electric. A young Zambian musician could well start off on a cheap, acoustic guitar, and (given the talent) work his way up to an E-guitar of international performance quality. He would only have to develop his playing, not unlearn his first instrument and relearn another.

 

Can we say the same of the concertina - whatever system you happen to prefer?

 

Cheers,

John

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Apropos John's comment,the Salvation Army used to run a school at Likoni in Mombasa where they had a concertina band. There is a photo in one of Neil Wayne's Free Reed magazines. As far as I know, the concertina has not taken off in Kenya. Perhaps it is because it is too expensive and not suited for the many styles of Kenyan music. The guitar on the other hand has been adopted widely.

 

By the way, although not really relevant to this discussion,Idi Amin used to play melodeon.

 

Simon

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