Vegetables have been used in the world of sound in various ways. Filmmakers line empty rooms with plastic sheets and pulverise a variety of fresh vegetables with hammers to capture the sounds of breaking bones, splattering blood and tearing flesh. The use of vegetables for musical instruments started thousands of years ago, the very earliest probably being a hollowed out log — hit with sticks, it became a drum.
Two vegetables have always been used: the gourd and bamboo. The main criterion is that the vegetable must be elastic and yet reasonably hard so that it will keep its shape and, hence, its tone. In Africa and India, gourds and calabashes filled with dried seeds have been used as rattles. The West African water drum is a small gourd floated on water upside down and hit with a beater. The African xylophone uses the gourd to amplify the sounds of wooden bars.
There are many examples of stringed instruments that use gourds for the body: the kemancha fiddle of Iran; the kora from West Africa, a cross between a harp and a lute that is played in Gambia and Mali; the sitar from India. Ocarinas have been found made from dried fruit shells.
The Long Island Vegetable Orchestra performs experimental musical composition with cucumbers, radish, eggplants, green peppers and carrots. The students are led by Professor Dale Stuckenbruck, a renowned violinist and concert master of well known Broadway, and his favourite instrument is the eggplant. Rub two together and they make a squeaking sound like sneakers on a gymnasium floor, or a monkey chanting “ooh ooh ooh”.
Dr Cranius Lunch, Seth Sethstherton and Grebe are more commonly known as the Wyld Men and they specialise in vegetable instruments. They have produced a CD called Veggie Music, using yams, potatoes, beetroots, broccoli and carrot whistles.
Koyama Junji, also known as Heita3, from Japan describes himself as a “vegetable musician and amateur poet”, and his videos introduce the vegetable musical instruments he makes and how he plays them. Here are some of the instruments that he makes out of vegetables: a pumpkin can become a drum with tiny eggplant, squash or carrot drumsticks; celery is transformed into a guitar; a carrot and a bell pepper make a horn. Carrots with holes drilled into them can make flutes, recorders and clarinet-like instruments; leeks are transformed into a violin.
Bamboo is an ideal material for creating flutes or percussion instruments, especially scrapers. The angklung is an Indonesian instrument made of swinging bamboo tubes. The guiro, from South America, is made by making transverse notches along the surface of a bamboo stick. In Asia and the Pacific Islands, bamboo is used to make flutes; the Polynesian nose flute, panpipes in western Bolivia, the shakuhachi, an end-blown flute in Japan, and the xiao in China.
Vegetables are used to create string instruments. The African cornstalk zither uses corn stalks bound together with plaited grass, as strings. And now suddenly there is an explosion of music from vegetable instruments. The most famous is the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra founded in 1998 — with 11 musicians and a sound engineer, they create their instruments from fresh vegetables. With carrot flutes and clarinets, pumpkin basses, leek violins, leek zucchini-vibrators, cucumberophones and celery bongos, the orchestra plays concerts all over the world, its repertoire including contemporary music, jazz, beat box. Their recent album is called Onionnoise. The instruments are made from scratch, just one hour prior to each performance using the freshest vegetables available. As an encore at the end of the concert, the audience is offered fresh vegetable soup.
In China, two brothers, Nan Weidong and Nan Weiping, are giving performances with instruments from fresh as well as dried plant material such as carrots, leeks, celery roots, artichokes, dried pumpkins and onion skin, marrows, lotus roots and Chinese yams. According to the brothers, different vegetables have different scales and are therefore suited to different melodies: a sweet potato makes an ocarina; a bamboo shoot becomes a flute; a yam a whistle. But controlling the pitch is still extremely difficult because changes in the air temperature, humidity and other factors can warp the shape of the holes and put the notes out of tune. Their repertoire ranges from traditional Chinese flute music to modern pop and folk songs.
Flutenveg is a group in Australia who make musical instruments like panpipes out of carrots and other vegetables. They scour vegetable markets for long carrots between 15-25 cm and four inches in diameter at the thick end. It takes about three hours to make a full set of panpipes — 12 notes. Another two to three hours to make the flageolet and quena flutes. Once finished, these are wrapped in very wet tea-towels and kept in the fridge until performance time. Other instruments are made from fresh celery and mung beans.
Linsey Pollak is one of Queensland&’s most famous musicians. He turns carrots into clarinets and, using digital technology, makes complex, rich music with cooking utensils and vegetables. He produces albums and his latest is The Art of Food, Making Jam and Bim… BamBoo!!
The London Vegetable Orchestra, led by master instrument-maker Tim Cranmore, has joined forces with a collection of the UK&’s leading orchestral, jazz and popular musicians to create an innovative fusion of vegetables and music. Some of their instruments are cassava root trombones, butternut squash bugles, pumpkin bass drums, courgette trumpets, two-tone carrots and squash, sweet potato percussion. They also do workshops teaching people how to make these instruments.
The bottle gourd is the lauki/dudhi/ghiya. Rounder varieties are called calabash gourds. They come in a variety of shapes: huge and rounded, small and bottle-shaped, or slim and serpentine, more than a metre long. Calabashes have always been used in string instruments in India as resonators. Instruments that look like guitars are made of wood, but they can have a calabash resonator at the end of the strings table called a toomba. The sitar, surbahar and the tanpura have a toomba. In some, the toomba may not be functional, but keeps its place because of its balance function, as in the Saraswati veena. Other instruments like the Rudra veena and Vichitra veena have two large calabash resonators at both ends of the strings table. The Baul singers of Bengal have their musical instruments made out of calabash. My favourite instrument is the elegant ektara and its resonator is made from a calabash gourd.
These toombas are made of dried calabash gourds whose seeds were specially imported from Africa and Madagascar. They are grown in Bengal and in Miraj, Maharashtra. These gourds are valuable and are carefully tended, even given injections to stop insects from making holes while they are drying.
The next time you want to listen to the sound of music, go into your kitchen!
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