Sunday, August 24, 2008

How to make a gourd instrument

Making Music from Gourds
(Originally published June 5, 2008 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel)

When I attended my college choir reunion in Redlands last month, I had to admit to those who asked, that I hadn’t been singing much in the last 32 years. Since college, I’ve focused much more on visual art than music. While in Southern California, I also took a side trip to the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles. One modern piece sizzled and buzzed loudly and intermittently in a corner of the museum, drawing attention to itself. I couldn’t help but think, this artist took sound into consideration when creating this piece.

My neighbor, Shirley, let me borrow a great book called “Making Gourd Musical Instruments” by Ginger Summit and Jim Widess. It features a photo of a gourd banjo made by her son Paul Sedgwick—an authority on the West African origins of the banjo—and a wide array of other gourd instruments in all sound-making categories. The instruments are divided up into chapters, which reflect the four basic ways in which a vibrating body creates sound:

  • Idiophones—the gourd itself creates the sound by being struck, rubbed, shaken, etc.;
  • Membranophones—sound is created by the striking of a stretched membrane;
  • Chordophones—the sound source is a vibrating string under tension; and
  • Aerophones—air is the initial sound source, and the instrument body selectively reinforces some of the wavelengths produced.

Idiophones include maracas, rain sticks, tambourines, rasps, xylophones and others you may only recognize by sight (skekere, sistrum, mbria, ulili, caxixi, and ilimba). Membranophones are basically drums. Chordophones include lyres, harpes, zithers, lutes, fiddles, guitars, banjos, dulcimers. Aerophones are flutes, horns, reeds and Aeolian instruments which are powered by the wind rather than human breath.

The great thing about gourd instruments is that they’ve been around for thousands of years, in every culture with a climate warm enough to grow a gourd plant, from the Far East to the South Pacific, from Australia to Africa, from Europe to North and South America. Virtually every instrument played today has a gourd ancestor. Even the acordian has its roots in a 3,000-year-old Asian gourd instrument still played today called the sheng.

Gourds can be grown in your own backyard, purchased at a gourd festival (several festivals take place in California during the year), or through online vendors. Gourds come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, so, if you grow your own, select seeds that will thrive in your climate and create the types (dipper, snake, bottle, etc.) you want.

SHEKERE (African gourd rattle)

“Making Gourd Musical Instruments” has instructions for making various gourd instruments. I chose to start with a shekere (pronounced “SHA-ku-re”), a common rattle originally from Africa, which was brought by slaves to the Western Hemisphere. It is commonly used today in South and Central American and the Caribbean, and can be played by tossing from hand to hand, shaking, tapping, or twisting. While there are several variations of shekere, all are covered by a loose-fitting net, into which are woven hard objects such as shells or beads.

What you need:

  • Dried bottle gourd (you should be able to hear the seeds rattling inside, or it hasn’t dried enough)
  • Twisted nylon medium load mason line, 80 feet of #15 or #18 (seine twine)
  • 250 pony beads
  • Steel wool or plastic pot scrubber
  • Awl
  • Tape
  • Candle and matches

What you do:

Clean any black mold from the outer shell of the dried gourd by soaking the gourd in a large pot of warm water with a mild soap or bleach. Hold the buoyant gourd down with a wet towel and a heavy pot lid. After about 15 minutes of soaking, scrub with steel wool or a pot scrubber until mold is removed, revealing the smooth, mottled gourd shell surface.

Tape the gourd to a plastic container so it stands upright. Cut two 2-foot lengths of twine. Melt all cut ends of the twine so they won’t unravel. Fold the two lengths in half around a tack or nail in a board, and weave a four-part braid long enough to loosely encircle the top of the gourd. (There are various ways to weave four strands—I used the right strand over one, left strand over two approach.) Bring the loose ends of the braid through the loop on the other end and tie an overhand knot to secure. Trim the excess to about one inch.

Cut 25 lengths of twine, each three-feet long. Fold each three-foot length in half and attach to the braid looped around the top of the gourd using a lark’s-head knot. Cinch the lark’s-head-knots and tie an overhand knot to secure. Take one strand from adjacent knots and joint in an overhand knot, using the awl if necessary to place the knot about ½ inch below the one above it.

After one row of knots, add a bead to every other strand and tie more knots using adjacent strands from separate pairs of knots. Continue the pattern to the bottom of the gourd. The last row can be without a bead to echo the top row. Attach adjacent pairs to another four-strand braid looped around the bottom of the gourd. Use “Fray Check” (a clear glue sold in fabric stores) or a candle flame to fuse the knots so they don’t unravel.

ULI’ULI (Hawaiian gourd rattle)

My modified uli’uli wasn’t made using traditional materials like basket reeds and feathers (I used poly-pro twine, watercolor paper and acrylic paints), but it’s made in a similar way. Using a long-necked bottle gourd and a sharp craft knife, cut a wavy line around the bottom of the gourd to remove the “lid” (like you would a Halloween pumpkin). Using a mask, scrape the insides with a spoon and sandpaper outdoors to remove the pulp.

Drill eleven small holes evenly spaced around the shoulders of the gourd (use an awl or a power drill). Cut lengths of twine to be the spokes and secure them to the holes with knots tied on the inside. Wrap the twine around the neck of the gourd several times to begin the handle. Use long narrow lengths of thick, painted, watercolor paper to weave in and out of the twine spokes, all the way down the handle. (I attached an extra piece from another gourd so the handle would flair out at the end, since I used a dipper gourd.) Finish the handle with a few more wraps of twine.

To toughen up the soft insides of the gourd, paint with several coats of sealant, sanding between coats. Add dried beans, unpopped corn, seeds, etc. to the inside of the gourd to get the sound you want, and glue the bottom piece back in place. Paint the outside of the gourd or leave natural.

Go to to see and hear Paul’s gourd banjos and for instructions on making a gourd didgeridoo.

No comments: