Playing the Conch: A Skill from Ancient Times

While people may be familiar with holding a conch shell up to their ear to hear the ocean, they may be surprised to learn that it is an important musical instrument for many ancient cultures, such as in South America, Southern Asia, and on the Pacific Islands.

A GIFT FROM THE SEA

A conch is the shell of a large sea snail and the shape makes it perfectly suited to be used as a musical instrument. The shells are a long and spiral shape with a tapered tip called a spire. When the spire is removed, the shells can be used as wind instruments by blowing through the hole.

Because each conch shell is unique, they all provide a slightly different sound.  Generally, the sound of a conch is loud and dramatic, however it has also been described as having an eerie quality. An experienced player can produce a variety of sounds from the shell.  The shape of the mouth, called the embouchure, controls the pitch of the sound. The sound can also be modified by putting a hand into the hole of the shell.

STANDING THE TEST OF TIME

Conch shells have been used since ancient times and have been a mainstay in religious ceremonies. The durability of the shells have allowed scientists to study these early instruments. In 2018, scientists discovered a 3,000-year-old conch instrument at a pre-Inca religious site in Peru. Conch shells have also been located at an ancient ceremonial center in the Andes, which were well-preserved with painted and etched symbols.

Modern technology allows scientists to emulate how the conch may have been heard and used in ancient times. In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, scientists calculated how sound waves would transmit in the specific, physical environment in the canyon. They determined that 1,000 years ago, the sound produced by a conch could be heard for 1.5 kilometers.

TEST YOUR CONCH SKILLS

If you think you have what it takes to be a conch musician, consider attending the annual conch-playing contest in the Florida Keys.

Maddale: The Perfect Percussion Back-Up Singer

Karnatak and traditional South Indian music have a heavy emphasis on the beat.

With a great selection of drums all coming from the mridangam family of percussion instruments, there are a lot of options to choose from.

Maddales are double-sided drums that are similar to other popular drums in the region like the pakhavaj. But this one is special because players can hit the right tone regardless of where they hit on the surface.

Who Plays Maddale Drums?

Maddales are the primary percussion instrument in Yakshagana ensembles. Yakshagana ensembles play music in a form of traditional theatre from India’s Kannada districts. The musical ensemble in Yakshagana performances are called the himmela, and they play as the mummela dance or talk. Himmelas include the lead singer, or bhagawata, and people playing various instruments including the maddale, a pipe called the pungi, and the harmonium. Some groups also play chande, or loud South Indian drums.

What Do Maddale Drums Look Like?

Maddales are double-sided drums that look like barrels. Made from jackfruit wood like a lot of their cousin percussion instruments, maddales also have drum heads made from goatskin and are covered in leather straps that can adjust and tune the maddale. Each drum head is shaped slightly differently so one produces a deeper sound than the other. The left-hand side produces the deeper sound, and the right-hand side includes a circular disk — called a karne — that produces harmonic sounds when the drum head is tapped.

What Makes Them Different from Mridangam?

If you’ve been researching different types of drums from South India, a maddale might sound a lot like a mridangam. The difference is the tonality: maddales can produce more complex sounds. The karne harmonic disc also makes the maddale sound very different from the mridangam. Maddales are also specifically tuned to align with the bhagawata’s, or the Yakshagana singer’s voice before every performance.

Ghatam: Ancient Drum with a Renewed Future

The ghatam is an ancient percussion instrument consisting of a clay pot reinforced with brass, copper and iron fillings.

Some players are so dedicated to ensuring a pure sound from the ghatam that they play with their shirts off in order to avoid dampening the sound.

Different from Other Drums

The ghatam is unique compared to other drums as it doesn’t have any type of membrane placed over the mouth of the drum. Instead, the ghatam players place the drum against their stomach. The surface of the drum is tapped, and the pitch and resonance are changed by applying different amounts of pressure against the stomach.

The drum produces a metallic sound and the pitch of the drum will vary depending on its size.

Preserving History

Ghatams are incredibly ancient with a long history in the Carnatic music tradition. The drums are predominantly made in three locations in South India: Devanahalli, Chennai, and Manamadurai. The Manamadurai ghatam drums are believed to be sturdier and to have a unique metallic sound.

There is only one family in Manamadurai that has been making the ghatam for the last century. U.V.K. Ramesh gave up a job in Singapore in 2000 to return to Manamadurai to continue the family tradition of ghatam-making. Ramesh, along with his mother, are the only two master ghatam makers in the region. Ramesh’s mother, Meenakshi, was awarded the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2014 for her ghatam-making skill before passing away in 2017.

The art of ghatam-making is likely waning because it isn’t a highly profitable business. The family supports itself by making other clay products that are sold at a local market. To help the family’s continued commitment to the ghatam, a member of the India Foundation for the Arts started an online funding campaign. These additional funds have allowed them to experiment with using an electric kiln while creating the ghatam.

The global campaign raised almost $8,000 thanks to a number of prominent musicians and artists sharing the cause. The global support allowed the family to manufacture a modernized, custom kiln. This outpouring of support will allow the ghatam to be modernized for the future while preserving its legacy of the past.

Electronic Tanpura: Prioritizing Practicality

The tanpura is an Indian string instrument that provides a supporting acoustic sound.

Playing the tanpura requires a certain amount of grace and skill. The electronic tanpura, on the other hand, makes tanpura music accessible to even the most rudimentary player – by turning it into a machine resembling a boom box.

From Musicality to Practicality

The traditional tanpura is a large instrument that is generally played from a seated position. It requires a skill to position the instrument and pluck the strings in the appropriate rhythms. It provides the backbone of much Indian classical music.

The electronic tanpura makes it much easier to keep the beat. This instrument was first invented by G. Raj Narayan in the 1970’s. The device was first demonstrated at the Music Academy Chennai in 1979 and manufactured by Narayan’s company, Radel Advanced Technology.

Technological Transformation

The electronic tanpura has evolved with the technology of the time:

  • In the 1970s it was made using discrete components and transistors;
  • In the 1990s it used sampled recordings on a chip;
  • In the 2000s, mobile apps were created;
  • In 2016, the Sonic Arts Research Center of Queen’s University Belfast created a mathematical model representing a physics-based synthesis of the instrument; and
  • In 2018, the mathematical model was developed into the Android app Pocket Shruti Box whose reviews indicate it is a very useful app for students learning Carnatic music.

The consistent innovation around the instrument show that it serves a valuable purpose for the Indian musical community. While it isn’t a match for the art of the original tanpura, prioritizing convenience over quality, it continues to offer a number of benefits, including its lower cost, easy portability, and straightforward use.

If you’d like to try your hand at one of the many electronic variations of the tanpura, you can test your skills with the Tanpura Drone Generator.