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Wholly Idioglot Single Reeds

These differ from the Idioglot Single Reeds described in another paper in this sequence because while the reed is the same, it is cut into the top of the instrument so that all is one: the reed and the fingerholes are all on the same piece of tubing. These instruments are usually quite small, around 15 cm (6 inches) in length. Whether the instrument is wholly idioglot or whether the reed is cut in a separate mouthpiece, one thing is essential: the tube must be stopped at the upper end, usually by a natural node. This is because unless the air goes into the tube past the reed, the reed will not vibrate – if the upper end were open, the air would take the easy route and simply flow down the tube unimpeded by having to make the reed vibrate. The blade can either be up-cut, slicing the blade upwards towards the top, or down-cut, slicing the blade down towards the fingerholes. The former is the more common because, if the reed is often blown, the constant vibration may make the cut extend itself with use, and the natural node will add strength to the hinge, whereas if it is down-cut, it might extend the slicing and combine itself with the uppermost fingerhole or, if it were as a separate mouthpiece, simply fall off the end.

With the up-cut reed, the whole mouthpiece down to the end of the reed has to be inserted in the mouth, for if the lips touched the end of the reed, that would stop it from vibrating. With the down-cut reed, the lips can close on the blade toward the hinge end, and bridle it, to control its vibrating length and thus its pitch, as we shall see with an organ reed below. There are other ways of controlling its pitch, and one that is often seen is a small blob of wax on the free end of the tongue, adding to its mass and thus its pitch; this also darkens the tone by reducing the higher frequencies.

The great advantage of the use of a separate mouthpiece is that if the reed ceases to work for any reason, one can simply make a new mouthpiece and stick it into the tube. If the reed of a wholly idioglot instrument stops working, then the only thing one can do is to throw away the instrument, wasting all the work that one has done in placing, cutting, and tuning the fingerholes.

As a result, the single-reed instruments with a separate mouthpiece are far the more commonly seen and heard around the world. Nevertheless, we do find wholly idioglot single-reeds. One example in my collection comes from Crete. The upcut reed is integral with the cane pipe, which is stopped by a node at the proximal end, so that it is truly idioglottal. The reed is on the flattened frontal surface, as are the five burned fingerholes. There is some blue and red decoration, although the red has now vanished due to exposure to light. It was said to have been a practice chanter for the local bagpipe. It came from Nicholas Shackleton in part-exchange, along with the information about its use.

Another such instrument came from Eivissa (Ibiza). It is somewhat more complex, with the reed truly idioglot but this time downcut. It has a high thumbhole (above the topmost fingerhole on the other side), with six fingerholes burned in. The base of the reed is lashed with waxed thread as a bridle, which can be slid up along the reed for tuning, for its pitch is largely determined by its length, and this also inhibits the reed from splitting further down the tube. The lower end of the pipe has an attached bell made from the tip of a horn, perhaps that of a goat, into which the pipe is inserted diagonally. This addition does not seem to be traditional, for none of the examples in the Barcelona Museum had such a bell, though all those seen nowadays have a bell either of horn or of a whelk shell. I suspect that this is designed to make the instruments more attractive to tourists. It was bought from Ramon Pinto Comas’s music shop, Casa Parramón in Barcelona.

To digress briefly, the use of a bridle for tuning a reed is also found with our organ reed-pipes, those with beating reeds such as the trumpet stops and so on, not the free reeds of the harmonium. In two examples that I have, which I think are fairly typical examples, the reed itself is a slip of thin, narrowly-tapering brass fixed into a slot of a metal body (called the shallot) above a cavity that leads to the base of the resonator pipe. A long, stiff metal iron wire, fixed fairly tightly through a hole in a projection, is bent sideways at the end to rest firmly on the reed itself. By moving this wire along the reed, to lengthen or shorten the vibrating length of the reed, the reed can be tuned. I found, by blowing it by mouth, that a very small movement of the bridle along the reed makes a very considerable difference to the pitch obtained. – it takes only a very slight movement to sharpen or flatten the pitch. I’ve digressed from the idioglot reed here to discuss how the tuning bridle works, but while we’re on organ pipes it is necessary to emphasise that with organ reedpipes, it is the length and the mass of the reed that determines the pitch; the pipe is a only coupled resonator whose shape etc determines the tone, and thus the name of the rank or stop to which it belongs – the resonator does not affect the pitch.

Also this description of the shallot, the slot, and the reed is also that of the idioglot instruments that we have here, even though here they are two separate pieces of brass. Because the idioglot reeds are sliced longitudinally, the separation leaves a shoulder of cane against which the reed can beat, just like the shoulder and distal end of the slot of the shallot.

A very different variety of wholly idioglot single-reed instruments is found in Nigeria, among the Hausa people. These are side-blown. Instead of putting the top of the instrument into the mouth, the player holds the side of the tube to his face and covers the reed area with his mouth. There at least three types of these: the til’boro, the busan karo, and the damalgo. The til’boro is the smallest of the three, but all are made from lengths of guinea corn stalk, a common term for sorghum. They are made only at harvest time, for this is when the corn is cut. The til’boro is made from a single internode, whereas the other two are usually made from two internodes, with the nodes burned through or poked more or less clear with a rod. This til’boro, and two of my damalgos are covered below the reed with a sheath of red leather resembling morocco leather, which is stitched at the back of the instrument and is decorated with black ink. This shows that the instrument is made with some care and trouble, and suggests that the instrument is expected to endure for at least a little time. The other two damalgos and the busan karos are left uncovered, so this would seem to be a choice by the makers. They are made and played by young men for entertainment and to earn pocket money; presumably the better the instrument looks, the more likely it is that some money will be made.

The til’boro is open at each end, either of which may be stopped with a finger. There is one thumbhole, knife-cut through the leather cover, at the end furthest from the reed, about 20° off the line of the reed, towards the inside as the instrument is played. The long, very flexible, idioglot reed (belu or beli), is a strip of the cortex 50mm long and about 0.6mm thick, cut in the side of the tube near one end. It has a light cord bridle (zare) which is pulled by the player to control it. The pitches are produced by both blowing and sucking, and the pitch differs according to the direction of the airstream, in or out, and the flexibility of the reed gives it a tone quality very similar to that of a free reed..

David Ames described the instrument to me, on his return from Nigeria, and asked me whether I thought that this was a free reed instrument or not; it was impossible to be certain when listening to the sound on his tapes, nor from his description. He therefore asked the Gidan Madauchi Ibrahim Bagudu of Zaria to send me examples of each type. It is indeed a side-blown beating reed but with so long and so flexible a reed that the sound is extraordinarily close to that of a free reed such as a mouthorgan. Professor Ames’s query was complicated by the fact that players use both inhalation and exhalation, something that occurs with no other single reed instrument known to me, but which is common on free reeds in Asia. I do not know of any side-blown single reeds other than the til’boro and its relatives, the busan karo, and the damalgo, nor have I heard of any indigenous African free reed instruments. Much of the detailed information here was either provided by David Ames in conversation or has been taken from his and Anthony King’s book, A Glossary of Hausa Instruments.

This was my introduction to the Madauchi (an officer of the Emir’s court analogous to that of a Vizier in the Tales of the Arabian Nights), from whom I have obtained a number of instruments of various types over the years.

The damalgo is similar to the busan karo, in that both are made of two internodes of guinea-corn, but the damalgo has a spherical gourd as a reed cap over the proximal end with the reed and also another gourd over the foot, whereas the busan karo does not have these gourds. Two of my damalgos are covered in red leather, similarly to the til’boro, from immediately below the reed to the foot, with the leather stitched at the back, with black ink decoration and with two prominent leather tassels. A fingerhole burned through the leather cover near the distal end is stopped with the left thumb. The lower gourd is fairly firmly fixed between the swelling of the lower node and the end of the leather sleeve. The upper gourd covers the reed and has a hole in the side through which it is blown, while the lower gourd also has a round hole cut in it approximately 45° from the line of the bore so that it can be stopped by the palm of the hand when the thumb is over the fingerhole. The reed bridle is of hard string.

There are many other examples of wholly idioglot reed instruments around the world, but these should suffice as examples.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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