Valued yet also disparaged throughout the world

The shawm players are remarkable individuals. They play sacred music in temples, for processions and wedding-feasts, for group dances where the sensuality can reach a state of ecstasy or trance. They may be snake charmers or healers. In some regions of Europe, as part of the revivalist movement, the music of the shawm has become an expression of regional identity; in Catalonia and other regions of Northern Spain, in Brittany, in Southern France (birthplace of the troubadours and one of the main sources of European music) and in some parts of Italy.

We have been travelling for 25 years to meet shawm players in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. We have met them during their annual gathering at St. Martial in the Cevennes, in the South of France and during the “fest-noz” night festivals in Brittany, in the processions in honour of the Saint of Zaragoza, at Christmas in the old town of Naples and during their annual festival in the small Italian town of Scapoli at the Southern end of the Abruzzi. Beyond Europe, they still have a place in the living traditions of the people; in Morocco we found snake charmers in Marrakesh (playing these days for tourists), the healer of a Sufi group in the South of the country, a village musician in the mountains behind Tangiers; in Tunisia a group was playing for tourists in the hotel. The piper who was playing for a wedding-feast in Sana, capital of Yemen, crossed our path by chance. We have visited musicians’ houses at Chiva in Uzbekistan (on the old Silk Road) and in the Kirghiz village of Osh. Waiting for a client to hire them, we found shawm players squatting in the dusty streets of the Pakistan town of Quetta. Another was playing for a wedding procession in Ajmer (Rajasthan) to honour the bride and groom as they entered the temple and again in the Thar desert (on the Indo-Pakistani border). We saw temple musicians leading a Hindu procession in South India. During our journey from Pakistan to China, through the Karakorum Pass, we stayed with a local player in the Hindu Kush. We once came upon a group of musicians in the Taklamakan desert, playing for a nighttime dance of the Uigures: yet another in the conservatoire of Otan was creating his archaic instrument solely from two straws. We met up with musicians in Hanoi and on the isle of Sumatra. And we were always struck by the character and sensitivity expressed in their faces.

Although shawm players were always sought after as musicians, but as a professional group, they held a marginalised and difficult position in many countries. We are familiar in Europe with the ambiguity that they experience on the part of society, especially travelling peoples (such as Sintis and Romas) called gypsies by the settled communities who make life difficult for them. In the same way street musicians, even these days, often encounter the same mixture of admiration and disdain from residents. Since the music of the shawm, linked since antiquity with eroticism, arouses the senses, it has often been strongly condemned by religious fundamentalists, in Islam as in Christianity. In the Middle Ages, not only were the musicians persecuted by the Church so were those who associated with them. Even today, the music of the shawm is banned by Islamic groups such as the Taliban. In India, these musicians are part of the group known as “Untouchables”. Traditionalists who employ players for weddings do not communicate with them except through intermediaries. Only temple musicians enjoy more respect, especially within Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, shawms have always been present in processions – for example, in our own time in Northern Guatemala, in front of the church at Easter (but never inside!). Religious groups close to mysticism value the instruments more highly, as for example with the Hamadchas in Morocco where the shawm is played during the ceremonies and rituals of healing.

Our meetings with musicians have sometimes arisen by chance, sometimes after hearing them in a market or street. A meeting (by accident or destiny?) was also the starting point for our journeys. Thirty years ago, in Thessalonica, during a professional trip together, my wife Verena Nil, knowing that I wanted to learn to play a wind instrument, started a conversation, while waiting at a bus stop, with a man who was holding a musical instrument in his hand. He invited us to come along that same evening to a tavern where he would be playing. The sound of the instrument fascinated us immediately. Since then, every year, we have travelled the cultural routes, known as the Silk Road, between Asia and Europe, as well as in Africa or South America, in regions where these traditional instruments were still alive. Frequently, it was difficult to make ourselves understood, without a common language, but music, gestures, mimicry, and sometimes a little sketch, enabled us to communicate. Often we managed to exchange an instrument we had brought with us. In this way we assembled our collection of shawms which today forms the core of our treasures deposited at the International Centre for Popular Music in Ceret in the South of France (

We have never made sound recordings. From previous bad experiences, musicians too often fear being exploited.

We always had permission to take photographs but because of the language barrier, we were not able to record the names of those to whom we were speaking. Furthermore, the majority of traditional musicians use regional stage-names (such as “Frère-Cadet”) and transcribing these into one of the languages of this book would in any case have been inadequate. Thus the pictures remain anonymous as with innumerable generations of musicians who have passed on their music without leaving us their names. Nevertheless, I regret this anonymity and I apologise to the people concerned, as also to the readers.

Alongside the traditional musicians, we should not forget the shawm players who perform ancient music, particularly from the baroque and renaissance periods, in studios and concert halls.


Throughout history, the sound of reeds has accompanied humanity. There is documentary evidence of their existence from the 3rd century B.C. in the cultures around the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Despite all subsequent changes, through Antiquity (Greece, Egypt, the Etruscans, and Romans) and the Middle Ages, there is, still today, a cultural continuity with the music of the modern world. Shawms are the ancestors of our modern concert oboes, our bassoons, clarinets and saxophones. The accordion and organ are also descendants. Thus traditional oboes and bamboo flutes are the simple and original forebears of the instruments which are nowadays enjoyed and can be heard at popular festivals, in concert rooms, dance halls, films and operas. These ancestors are simply constructed, modest in appearance but are remarkable for their sound. They are either unknown or little known by the majority of people.

The shawm enjoyed a first golden age in Greece from the 7th century BC as a double instrument (the “aulos”, plural “auloi”). Most of these consisted of two pipes, one for the right hand and one for the left. (Auloi are also painted in frescoes in the tombs of Ancient Egypt). They were the predominant wind instrument throughout the Greek Empire. Many images on pots and vases confirm this and pass on to us detailed representations of these instruments and their uses. Played by courtesans, oboes accompanied the erotic part of citizens’ meetings known as “symposia”. They were present at the Olympic Games, for the fights and processions, during altar sacrifices, to accompany work tasks (for example, while pressing grapes or kneading dough) and during military activities.

In both Old and New Testaments, reed instruments are mentioned many times. The Old Testament refers to them six times (Samuel 10,5, First Book of Kings 1,40, Isaiah 5, 12 and 30,29 and Jeremy 48, 36 and 51, 27 and the New on six occasions (Matthew 9,13, First Corinthians 14,7 and Revelations 18,27). In these instances the name of the instrument is usually wrongly translated as “flute”. Shawms played for the enthronement of Solomon (First Book of Kings ,28), as Jesus entered the dead girl’s house (Matthew 9,2), where he began by ejecting the oboists who were already playing their lamentations.

In the Roman Empire, tibiae were indispensable during sacrifices and other rites, omnipresent during leisure activities; they travelled the routes of commerce and war. Etruscan musicians (playing the “sibulo”) were especially esteemed. Shawm players travelled the length and breadth of medieval Europe and remained itinerant musicians through the following centuries. They accompanied troubadours and were depicted in the Manesse codex. The shawm was played during medieval tournaments. Pipers played at Court and at fair; as shown, for example, in the chronicle of Diebold Schilling (1513) of Lucerne, by the impressive image of a duo of oboists playing for the townspeople during the carnival. In depictions of “danses macabres”, death often came to seek out men to the sound of shawms.

In 17th. Century Europe, gradually, shawms were crowded out of the cities, into the countryside (and to shepherds). Thus, the author of a poem of this period allows the modern oboe to address the traditional shawm with contempt:

Begone, peasant shawm, my sound will defeat yours

I will do what I must, both in peace or wars

From church and court, stay well away

I will enjoy the juice of grapes; you, the dregs of beer

Stay in your village, I have the castle and the towns

You adorn yourself with simple ribbons, I wear a chain of gold.

During the 18th. Century, the traditional instruments became ever more rare so that, by the start of the 20th. Century, they had disappeared completely from many areas as part of the diminution of the countryside. But they remained alive in certain regions and enjoyed, in the second half of the 20th. Century, rehabilitation as national instruments. In Asia and North Africa, their history was more unbroken and the musical tradition has been sustained without interruption until our own day; though with increasing frequency the shawm is being replaced by the clarinet. In South America, where the oboe was introduced by the Portuguese and Spanish and adopted by indigenous musicians, they remain in use only in a few parts of Guatemala and Peru.

Sounding pipe, mysterious reed

Within the category of traditional (or “folk”) instruments described as shawms, two distinct groups can be identified, oboes and clarinets. The body of an oboe consists of a conical or cylindrical pipe made from hard wood (box, olive, various fruitwoods, teak, ebony, sometimes bamboo). The instruments can sometimes appear conical on the outside but all have a cylindrical bore. Normally, the pipe has seven finger-holes and no keys. On most of these instruments, there is a hole for the thumb, sometimes two. Clarinets are almost always made from bamboo. They are often doubled, that is to say there are two pipes, one for each hand, played together. In ancient times, some types of oboe (auloi, tibiae) were also built on this double principle.

At the base of the pipe a horn is fashioned, either from the same wood as the pipe or fitted as a separate piece of wood or metal, more rarely a gourd or animal horn is used. The wooden horns often contain several holes; these influence the quality of the sound and reduce the risk of the wood cracking. Because of its appearance the instrument can be confused with a flute or trumpet. The crucial difference is that these latter instruments have no reeds, the element which gives shawms their rich, harmonic sound. Even today, many texts use the word “flute” when they actually mean shawm. In former times this erroneous naming may sometimes have been due to the fact that flute music was less looked down upon and therefore its use created less risks of causing offence (for example in the bible or in the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin).

In both oboes and clarinets the sound is created by thin blades of bamboo, the reeds, which vibrate as the player blows through them, producing the sound waves. Oboes are fitted with a double reed which opens and closes, very like the vocal chords in the human larynx. Many traditional music cultures use specific types of pressed plant-stems instead of bamboo strips. The bamboo clarinets use a single reed fixed above a slit. The opening and closing rhythmically of this reed produces by the sound. It is the reeds or which give the instrument that particular resonant character which stirs the emotions. The sound should be moving and exciting. Expert players can make their instruments produce sounds very close to those of a human voice and make them laugh or cry.

The making of reeds is an art in itself. The necessary materials can only be found in particular places. The reed must be cut at a precise time. Each player tailors his reed to produce the type of sound suiting to him or her. The structure of the material is of such complexity that it is not possible to foresee, in the raw state, whether the reed will be good, exceptional or inadequate. The reeds have a certain life span: as one plays them they first improve, then weaken over time, age and finally become unusable. Efforts to discover the secrets governing the quality of reeds using scientific analysis have proved inadequate.

The reeds of an oboe are mounted on a small metal tube or feather-stem, which is inserted into the main pipe of the instrument. The reeds of a clarinet are either cut directly into the instrument or fixed to a small bamboo tube fitting to the pipe of the instrument.

In the major wind instrument cultures, such as India or Turkey, the reeds are relatively soft, held completely within the mouth cavity and regulated almost solely by the pressure of the breath. In Europe, players use much harder reeds, placed between the lips. These are regulated by lip-pressure, which makes the playing more forced and tiring. Traditionally the shawm is played with a circular breathing technique, in which the player retains some air in his or her inflated cheeks. While using this reserve of air in to blow into the instrument he or she breathes in new air through the nose, in such a way as to not interrupt the flow of the music. By doing this the player can create a long, sustained melody.

The magical sound

Throughout human history no festival or celebration, whether religious or profane, was complete without shawm music. The enchanting sound served priests, healers, military leaders, lovers and the bereaved. As long ago as ancient Egypt, an educational text, used in the teaching of scribes, advised the pupils to avoid the presence of women of “dubious reputation” who would seduce them with the sound of shawms. Lovers to court their sweethearts use tiny shawms to this day on the island of Sumatra. In the beginning, shawms were chiefly women’s instruments. They were associated with the mother and earth goddesses, Cybele and Demeter. The Greek auloi were closely linked to the rites and mysteries whose patron was Dionysus, god of the transgression of everyday rules and restrictions, of ecstasy, of wine, of all forms of sensuality and also of reincarnation. In ancient Rome, there was a college of musicians who directed official acts and rites and there was a group of female Syrian slaves who were as renowned for their knowledge of the art of love as for their music. Mosaics in Cologne demonstrate that tibiae were played throughout the Roman Empire as far as Central Europe.

The music of shawms was associated with the forces of life and death. It was always employed in the curing of sickness. The piper was seen as a magician who, through his music, acquired power over men. The shawm was the instrument not only for breaking restrictions and of sensuality but also for connecting with the invisible, with gods and demons, with the devil and with death.

Its capacity to arouse powerful emotions made the shawm an instrument to accompany sporting events. In Indonesia shawms are still used to accompany the regional martial arts, as they were with the ancient Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans and in the tournaments of the Middle Ages. They are also still used during wrestling matches in many Asian countries. For example, we once found a duo of shawm and tambour playing during a polo tournament in Ladakh (in Northern India).

In view of the stirring effect that the shawm could have it was of use and was used by armies. Shawms served with both Greek and Roman armies and with the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. It was the main musical instrument of the elite corps of Janissaries. While the West assimilated percussion instruments into concert music, shawms were more readily accepted into military bands. There were shawm players at the French court and there were still Breton pipers in the French Army into the last century.

The use of shawms in military music has influenced the style of European folk music, as well as that of regions which were under the influence of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey, the Maghreb). Shawms acquired the reputation of being shrill and monotonous. But they are also capable of a delicate and intimate style, with a sweet and emotional feeling, which has been particularly maintained and developed in Asia. This style is played on cylindrical instruments among which are the shenai of the Indians, the duduk of the Armenians and Georgians, the mey of the Turks and some types of playing in South-East Asia. In our own time, this more subtle style is finding greater recognition through the revival of interest in shawm music, in jazz and in world music.