African Musical Instrument Surrogates in the Americas: Scraped Idiophones
By Eddie Osborne
Although the use of musical instrument surrogates, or substitutes, by Africans enslaved in the Americas appears to have been a spontaneous occurrence, the practice was hardly a New World innovation. Continental Africans have a long tradition of employing items not usually thought of as instruments in music making. Indeed, to the African way of thinking, any object that produces a suitable sound may be considered a musical instrument. To illustrate, the Akka people of the Equatorial rainforest immerse themselves in rivers and use cupped hands to beat the water as a means of providing percussive accompaniment to their singing; men and women in Mali and neighboring countries in West Africa play gourds -- sometimes in the form of a half gourd held against the chest and sometimes in the form of a large gourd filled with water and a smaller one inverted and floating on the water's surface -- with wooden sauce spoons and with ringed fingers; and blacksmiths among the Yoruba of Nigeria use their hammers, called omo'wu, as musical instruments, tapping the club-shaped implements rhythmically on anvils to accompany their incantations to Ogun, the orisa, or deity, of iron (Thieme 1969:370-72; Nketia 1974:75).
In the case of African captives in the Americas, however, the use of everyday objects as musical instruments came about out of sheer necessity as many of their traditional instruments either were banned outright or their manufacture and use was severely restricted. Because of the repressive climate in which the captives found themselves, and because they often had few resources, or time, to recreate their traditional musical instruments, musicians had to improvise, using all manner of natural and man-made objects -- animal parts, household implements, and tools -- to produce sounds similar to those made by the various instruments they had known in their home areas. The ingenuity of enslaved Africans in creating substitutes to fulfill the functions of their traditional instruments is evidenced by the various forms taken by the scraped idiophones. Scrapers utilizing assorted materials (household utensils, tools and other implements, animal parts, gourds, bamboo, wood, etc.) were, and are, to be found in African-descended communities in the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Central and South America, and the United States. These improvised instruments -- some of which were developed independently in various parts of the Americas and some of which were spread by diffusion from one area to another -- include the following:
In the southern United States, a popular substitute for traditional African scrapers was the ordinary washboard, which was widely used as a musical device in the jug bands and other street ensembles as late as the 1950s. Today, however, the washboard occurs mainly in southern Louisiana (where it is known as a rub board or frottoir and is standard in Zydeco bands) and in coastal Georgia, where it is featured in performances by the McIntosh County Shouters and others. In its simplest form, the washboard is a rectangle of corrugated metal mounted in a wooden frame, its purpose being to rub clothes which, in an earlier time in the South, often had been boiled in a large iron kettle. When employed as a musical instrument, the player uses one or more metal objects -- either thimbles worn on the thumb and one or more fingers, spoons, or nails -- with which s/he rasp the ridges of the washboard in an upward and downward motion. The player may sit or stand, in the latter instance using one hand to hold the top of the washboard, with the bottom of the frame either straddling one leg or with the frame's two legs resting on the player's legs. In its more recent incarnation, the washboard often takes a concave, vest-like form which can be draped around the neck, thus freeing the player to use both hands in play. Another innovation, particularly in the wooden-frame models, is the addition of supplementary musical devices -- horns, bells, rattles, etc. -- which the musician can play with one hand while rasping with the other.
In the Bahamas, musicians transform the hand saw, a simple carpenter's tool, into a musical instrument surrogate by scraping back and forth over the saw's teeth with either a butter knife, screwdriver, or nail to keep a rhythm. The saw -- which replaced the bottle and nail scraper substitute (typically an empty Gibley's Gin bottle whose ridged sides were rasped), which in turn had replaced the washboard -- is featured in rake-and-scrape bands which play goombay music. In the United States, one of the preeminent players of the saw is Key West, Florida, resident Charles Roberts, widely known as "the king of the saw."
Another scraper surrogate used at one time in the southern United States, particularly by itinerant street performers and early jazz bands for percussive accompaniment, was the common food grater. In play, the musician held the grater by its handle and used a spoon, knife, or nail held in his free hand to rasp the perforated surface in an upward and downward motion. In Haiti a similar instrument is the graj, which may take the form of a kitchen grater or a piece of sheet metal with perforations made by using a hammer and nail to create closely spaced holes.
Yet another scraper surrogate that once was used by blacks in the U.S. South (particularly in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Louisiana) is the jawbone. The instrument was so-called because it consisted of the sun-dried lower jaw, or mandible, of a horse, mule, donkey, or cow with the teeth left in. Technically, the jawbone might be classed as a scraped or struck idiophone because it could be used as a scraper or rattle, depending on the sound desired. For a scraper effect, the player held the jawbone at the narrow point with the teeth facing upward and, using a nail or thin stick held in his free hand, stroked the teeth (either a single row or both) in a back and forth motion. For a rattle effect, the player used the fist or butt of the palm to strike the jawbone directly beneath the teeth or near the joint at the wide part over which the jaw was hinged in the animal's mouth, an action which caused the loose teeth to chatter. Now virtually obsolete in the United States, the jawbone still occurs occasionally in rural areas of a few Caribbean and South American countries with significant populations of people of African descent: e.g., Haiti, Cuba, Peru, and Colombia. In the Spanish-speaking countries the instrument is known variously as quijada ("jawbone," Cuba and Colombia) and quijada de burro ("donkey jawbone," Peru) and sometimes features small bells to augment the rattling of the loose teeth (Blades 1970:450).
A commercial adaptation of the jawbone is an instrument called a vibra-slap, which consists of a doubled length of metal with a wooden ball at one end and a hollow, striker-filled wooden box at the other. Unlike the jawbone, however, the vibra-slap is not scraped; rather, it functions as a rattle when the player takes the instrument by the handle with one hand and strikes the wooden ball against the palm of the other hand. This action causes the striker-filled box (whose function is analogous to that of the jawbone's teeth) to vibrate and create a rattling sound as they move about inside the box.
The wiri is a type of scraper found in the Netherlands Antilles island of Curacao. It may take the form of a gourd (when used for house parties), a cow horn, or a metal pipe (when used in benta street bands) -- all of which are played by rubbing a length of round wood or metal back and forth over the series of serrations along the surface (Howard 1967:252-53). Interestingly, and perhaps coincidentally, the half-round metal pipe form of the instrument bears a striking resemblance to the karinyan, a narrow iron chime/scraper which is struck (by jelimusow, women) to accompany song and dance and scraped (by donsokew, men) to accompany hunter's music in the Mande-speaking areas of West Africa (Charry 2000:406).
Perhaps the best known of the scraped idiophones is the guïro, an oblong dried gourd with an opening at the narrow end, transverse grooves etched along its surface, and one or two holes cut opposite the grooves for holding the instrument (Howard 1967:252). In play, the guïro is held vertically in the left hand and the serrations rubbed back and forth with a small hardwood stick or a length of bamboo or wire. Called guïro in Cuba, the instrument is known by a variety of names in Colombia and Venezuela (including guacharaca, charrasca, carrasca, and carraca (Gradante 1999:362) and as guayas in the Bahamas.
A metal version of the guïro also occurs in eastern Cuba and in the Dominican Republic, where it is called guayo and is used in groups playing both popular and folkloric music. It is made from a flat piece of tin which is formed into a cylinder, open at one end and closed at the other, with indentations over most of the surface. In play, the musician holds the guayo by the metal handle welded onto the body and strokes the instrument's rough surface up and down with a heavy-gage length of wire.
The reco-reco (also reso-reso and quere-quexe) is an Afro-Brazilian scraped idiophone widely used in popular and folk music groups. It occurs in two forms: as a section of bamboo with grooves cut on one side, and as a metal tube with a steel spring stretched along the length of the tube and secured at both ends (Almeida 1986:84). In both instances the instrument is played by scraping the serrations or spring with a small hardwood stick or length of bamboo.
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