Basic Information

Construction and Function Folk Oboe (A) and Bamboo Clarinet (B)

Folk Oboe: Construction and Function

A folk oboe consists of a tube (like the body of a flute) and a mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is made of a small connecting tube, a reed, and often a round disk, called pirouette.
The Pipe: It is made of either wood, bamboo, or sometimes metal. Folk oboes are usually wood, while folk clarinets are usually bamboo. The pipe is the large, most visible and representative part of the instrument, in which the air column vibrates. It can be cylindrical (having a uniform diameter), or have a gradual increase in diameter toward the bottom end of the instrument, creating a conical form. The age and origins of the conical form are debatable (already in antiquity or first later?). For some instruments, the outer form is conical while the inner cavity is nearly cylindrical. Some of the conical pipes are formed in two or three steps.

The bottom End: For oboes it is often in the shape of a bell. This can be formed from the same piece of wood as the pipe, or it can be a separate piece, which is additionally fixed to the end of the instrument; the separate piece can be made of the same wood, of different wood, or of metal. The bottom end of bamboo clarinets has no special shape, but sometimes it is made out of a horn, in general a goat horn.

The connecting Tube: The small connecting piece is generally conical and made of metal. At one end, the double reed is attached; the other end is fitted into the main body of the instrument. The length and specific form can vary widely according to cultural custom and the specific type of shawm it is. The end that is to be attached to the instrument is wrapped with thread, so that it fits perfectly into the instrument’s body. Some traditional instruments use the shaft of a feather as the connecting tube. For European/classical oboe instruments, the pipe has a cork piece fixed around the end for this purpose.

Reeds: The heart of the instrument, which gives it its unique sound, is the reed. The sound is created when the air in the pipe is set in motion, in regular movement, producing vibration. This movement occurs because the reed periodically interrupts the air currently produced by the musician. The interruption is brought about through the elasticity of the reed, which the player holds in his mouth or between the lips.

There are basically two types of reeds:
The Double Reed (oboe-reed): two fine slats open and close against one another when blown into, thus being set in rhythmical vibrating motion. Traditional double reeds vary greatly in size and shape depending on the instrument. The double reed structure can be formed by pressing together one stalk or by precisely fitting two separate slats to each other.

Single reed (tongue, clarinet-reed): a fine slat can variably open and shut an aperture in the instrument when blown into. Its vibrating motion likewise generates sound. The demands on the reeds, which function as valves, are unusually high. They receive ‘instructions’ from the blowing-pressure or lip-pressure from the player, which lets them achieve a precise result. They are used for hours, for days, for months, and must remain supple and elastic. Width, length, thickness and shape determine the sound’s characteristics. The reed translates the impulses of the breath-current and passes them on rhythmically to the pipe, the main body of the instrument, where these impulses fully sound. The properties and quality of the reed determine the richness and warmth of the sound.

Pirouette: In traditional playing styles, the smaller reeds were hardly ever held between the lips, but were rather held in the mouth. In order to be able to fully enclose the reed with the lips, folk instruments often have a pirouette, which makes an airtight sealing of the mouth area over the reed easier. There is a widened or thickened section on the connecting tube, onto which the disc fits to prevent it from sliding down over the tube. Pirouettes can be made of coconut shell, metal, horn, bone, or synthetic material. They are sometimes decorated.

Circular Breathing: Most traditions require that musicians use a difficult breathing/playing technique called circular breathing. While playing, and without removing the instrument from his lips, the musician uses his inflated cheeks as a kind of air chamber, blowing out the air stored in them while breathing in through the nose. Thus, an even and flowing playing of the instrument may be achieved continually for hours without interruption.

Bamboo Clarinet: Construction and Function

The instrument’s body: The bamboo clarinet is made of a cylindrical bamboo pipe. The body can be made of one single tube, or of separate pieces that fit into one another.

The mouthpiece: This part can be crafted on the same piece of bamboo as the body, forming one solid piece, or it can be crafted out of a separate piece of bamboo made to fit precisely into the body of the instrument. A long narrow opening is cut into the mouthpiece. The opening is covered by a finely crafted bamboo slat, which closes airtight over the opening when at rest. When blown into, the slat opens and closes rhythmically. Thus, the air in the body of the instrument is made to vibrate, thereby generating sound. The slat can be cut into the mouthpiece on the upper side of the instrument, on the under side.

The bottom end: In contrast to oboes, the bottom end of bamboo clarinets mostly has no special shape , but sometimes it is made out of a horn, in general a goat horn.
Double Instruments: Bamboo clarinets are often double instruments on which one player can play both together at the same time. The second instrument can play either a melody or a bourdon. The Launeddas of Sicily consist of three pipes: one for each hand, and a bourdon.

Dissemination and History

Folk oboes (double reed) and bamboo clarinets (single reed) are wind instruments whose sound is produced by blowing through fine reeds which are normally made of bamboo. A folk oboe is usually made of wood, and a folk clarinet of bamboo.

Both instrument groups can be classified as shawms. Various names for the folk oboe were developed in many languages: shenai (Indian), sarunai (Persian), sarune (Indonesian), zurna (Turkish), zukra (Tunisian). However contemporary musicians mostly use the name ‘shawm’ for the oboe in ancient music (i.e. medieval, renaissance). This does not do justice to the much older tradition to which they belong; folk oboes and bamboo clarinets have a history of over 3000 years.

The shawm has several familiar modern descendants: the contemporary oboe, the modern clarinet the bassoon and the saxophone. More distant relatives are the bagpipes and, with a free reed, the harmonium, the accordion and the harmonica. The saxophone was developed in the 20th century; the clarinet was created around 1700.

This means that contemporary reed instruments are quite new compared to the millennia-old folk oboe and bamboo clarinet.
Indispensable and prosecuted: Throughout all of cultural history, wherever vital or significant emotions have been concerned - in religious contexts, in ecstasies, rituals, official events or festive occasions, in the military, and in association with dance and the erotic - reed instruments have been indispensable. Although, because their music moves people and enables or encourages the transgression of boundaries, they have been discriminated against since antiquity and, later, by Christian and Islamic institutions; they have also been prohibited and displaced by political authorities. Wandering musicians in the Middle Ages, for example, or even modern day Rrom have been followed because of their music, which is based on the shawm tradition.

Today, in certain regions of Europe, shawms are enjoying a vital rediscovery. In areas such as Brittany, Southern France (Occitania), Catalonia and Northern Spain, some regions in Italy, and in the Balkans as well, shawms once again play a central part of regional culture.
The Near East, Africa: Forms of the instrument are to be found all over the north-coast of Africa (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco).

It is to be assumed that their dissemination began as early as with the Phoenicians, and that the Greeks and Romans spread their fame. In various southern Mediterranean areas, the instruments were ‘re-imported’ by the Ottoman culture; contemporary instruments of the region are a lasting result of and attestation to the long occupation of the Ottomans. The instruments are likely to have come to the southern coast of Africa (Zanzibar, for example) by ship via the spice trade, possibly by the time of antiquity.

Asia: The shawm tradition of antiquity has been continually preserved in Asia. Due to Islamic conquests, the instruments have been reestablished in many lands where they had already been present in antiquity. In contemporary world-music, Indian and Turkish shawm-music in particular has become well known in the west. Some of the most important ‘shawm-countries’ of Asia are Pakistan, Indonesia (Sumatra and Java), Vietnam, Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), Tibet, Nepal, and China.

Middle and South America: Spanish and Portuguese conquerors brought the instruments with them, which were subsequently integrated into various regions. Despite this fact, the modern clarinet and saxophone have, in recent decades, taken precedence in many countries. The shawm is now, therefore, to be found in only a few regions (North Guatemala, Peru).
What is likely to be the oldest pipe-instrument was unearthed in Mesopotamia (dating from about 2800 BC). A statuette found in the Cyclades - the island group located between Crete, Asia Minor and Attica - of a figure playing a double-pipe instrument, belongs to the 3rd century BC and is the first three dimensional representation of a double-pipe musician. Whether they are reed instruments or flutes is unknown.

Ancient Egypt: Unambiguous relatives to the shawm family are the double-pipe
instruments found illustrated in Egyptian grave decorations. On a tomb fresco which dates from the middle of the 2ndcentury BC, in addition to the instrument with parallel music pipes (probably clarinets), emerges the instrument on which the two pipes are situated at an angle to each other: the double-oboe, which corresponds to the Greek Aulos. The Egyptian double-oboe was probably primarily a dance instrument played by women.

Bible: Shawms (the hallil, usually incorrectly translated as flute) are mentioned at various points throughout the Bible. Among other places, they sound when David is anointed king and when Jesus came to the dead girl’s home.

Greek Antiquity: The Greeks attribute the instrument to Phrygian origins, the locality of which was on the Anatolian plateau, where modern-day Turkey is situated. The Greek double-shawm, usually an oboe, is called the Aulos (Auloi) and had many different forms and reeds. For the Greeks, it was the most important of wind instruments, a national instrument. It belonged to the entourage of the god

Dionysus was the god of fertility, wine, frenzy, ecstasy and rebirth. In the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, representations of the shawm became more common in regions of the eastern Mediterranean and, for the Greeks (Aulos, Auloi), became the most important wind instrument in rituals, festivals, symposiums, entertainment and war. Numerous illustrations on vases offer accurate information about the form of the instrument and, moreover, about the variety of reeds.

Etruscan and Roman: Shawms (Tibia) were first played in Italy by the Etruscans and were to be found throughout the entire Roman Empire. It was a national instrument, indispensable at all occasions. In Rome, the Syrian pipers, female slaves and prostitutes were famous. The instruments were spread by the Greeks (possibly also by the Phoenicians) throughout the entire Mediterranean region and by the Romans as well, as far to the north as Cologne, for example.

In Europe of the middle ages, shawm players travelled with troubadours from Southern France/Northern Spain (Occitania), and through all of medieval Europe with other wandering musicians, even to and through the countries north of the Alps. They played for royal courts to dance to just as they played at fairs. Nowadays, in the so-called ‘old music’ which is played with instruments modelled after those of the time concerned, a type of shawm is a central wind instrument.

In the 1800s, the shawm began to vanish in Europe and emerged in underground culture in some places during the early 20th century. It remained a part of folk music and culture in few places. In weddings and funerals it was replaced by the organ; in western concert halls, by the modern oboes, clarinets and bassoons, whose respective notes were more easily tamed and whose sounds blended in well with larger mixed orchestras. Hardly any place remained for the individual and often rebellious character of the shawm. Still, its uniquely individual personality lives on in the clarinet and even in the harmonica of folk music, but most prominently in Jazz, where the clarinet and the saxophone unalterably voice the joie de vivre, but also the melancholy of their predecessors.