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 Steve Palmer Ethnic Musical Instruments

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 18, 2007 12:32 am    Steve Palmer Ethnic Musical Instruments Reply with quoteBack to top

Steve Palmer Ethnic Musical Instruments Collection

My passion for collecting musical instruments started in 1992, the year I began recording under the name Mooch. In the summer of that year my wife and I visited a local mill, and in the shop I noticed a strange looking object made of dark wood - dusty, decorated, with metal tines sticking out. Curious, I played with it until I managed to get a sound. It occurred to me then that the instrument would add to the sound-spectrum of my band, which at that point consisted of me and some friends guesting on various traditional instruments. I had no synthesizer, only occasional access to music software at work, and a single electric guitar. The object turned out to be an mbira, or African thumb-piano. It was the first ethnic musical instrument I bought.

When I realised how useful this little instrument could be I began seeking out other instruments. Soon I was obsessed. A visit to the Strawberry Fayre in Cambridge provided two Moroccan hand drums and a strange buzzy instrument that turned out to be a Saharan reeded flute. From charity shops I bought end-blown flutes, ocarinas, cymbals, and many items of percussion. I had to have one of everything.

The instruments were incredibly useful. Though I could not play flute, it was easy to improvise notes, and, with a little practice, bend between sounds and notes. This naive style of playing suited my soundscapes evoking alien rituals and interstellar flight. My first proper recording, soon to be released on CD although I did not know it then, was "3001", which featured ocarinas from South America, flutes, hand drums, and more. I wove these sounds into the ambience to add a human factor to the predominantly electronic music. It made my palette different, and, with the use of short-wave radio found sounds, made my music instantly recognisable.

When I got my first record deal with Taste Records my collection of instruments had expanded to twenty or so. The more adventurous use of electric guitar, better recording technique, and a selection of new flutes and hand percussion made "Postvorta" (1993) a better album than "3001". Later recordings featured ever more complex percussion, and in 1995 "Starhenge" was released, an album that crystallised the mid-nineties Mooch sound: ethno-ambience, electronics, Hillage-style guitar and short-wave radio recordings.

By now I had taken to visiting the famous Ray Man's Ethnic Instrument shop in London - paradise for a man with my particular obsession - and as the years passed I never stopped collecting. I began buying acoustic ethnic guitars and converting them to left-handed use. One or two of these guitars were expensive, but they were worth it: a saz (Turkish long necked lute), an oud (Arabian fretless lute), bouzouki (Greek), charango (half sized South American ten stringed guitar), balalaika (Russia), and so on. I had my electric, Spanish and 12 string, but the ethnic guitars added spice to my recordings; they were particularly useful when the Blue Lily Commission solo project began in 2000. Meanwhile, I had bought a Native American flute from the Dartmoor-based New Age musician Nigel Shaw - my first professional quality flute. I had in the years since 1992 learned to "play" my many flutes, but it was a style based on my ignorance of the instrument. I learned to find and bend notes more by intuition than any skill. To this day I would never say I was a flute player. But I can make the instrument sound nice.

As for the percussion items, they seemed to be breeding inside their cardboard boxes. It is amazing what variety of shakers people can make: seed pods, metal shakers, metal bells, rattles, and much more. One of my best sources was 'The Art Of Africa', a shop in Glastonbury. I must have forty or more different percussion items now. The flutes too seemed to be multiplying. Flutes are amazing: you think you have seen them all, then something different turns up. Even similar looking flutes can have differing sounds, so I have about thirty of them.

Then there are the one-offs. A strange wailing instrument from Burma that looks like an alien head; the berimbau I bought a couple of months ago in Cambridge; various two-stringed instruments from Central Asia; the kubing mouth-harp; xylophones; the African harp, the Burmese harp... Most of these instruments are still inside cardboard boxes from my last house move. There is nowhere to put them.

Recording the instruments depends on what they are. Some flutes are best recorded with the microphone at the mouth end, others at the opposite end. Most percussion items record beautifully, and I usually make these recordings into samples; these days I never play them as I used to in the nineties, for up to 23 minutes at a time... Hand drums are best recorded with the microphone off the upper surface, but you can get some great sounds by placing a microphone inside the body of the drum. It is guitars that are most difficult to record. The saz I record with a DiMarzio pick-up, while the bouzouki is so brash and loud it can be recorded off a standard microphone. The most difficult instrument is the oud, which records poorly off a pick-up, but is difficult to mike up. Also I find it difficult and frustrating to play because it is fretless, and so I have not used it very much. Ironically, it was by far my most expensive purchase.

After fifteen years of collecting ethnic musical instruments, is there anything I still want? Oh, yes! A santoor, a left-handed sitar would be nice, I would love an Indian harmonium, and you can never have too many cymbals...

STEVE PALMER



Notes. The photographs show a small selection of instruments collected.

Image

(top to bottom) :

Nepalese cymbals, Egyptian bells (left), 3 Indian finger-cymbal sets, big Indian cymbals, Tibetan temple cymbals, Nepalese bell, giant Egyptian cymbals, sarna bells.

Image

(left to right) :

3 Balinese flutes, Indian flute, Nepalese flute, Armenian duduk, Native American flute, bamboo saxophone, weird reed thing, Indian snakecharmer's flute, Egyptian pipes, Saharan pipes, Cretan pipes, South American pan pipes.

Image

(left to right) :

bouzouki, oud, saz, balalaika, charango (horizontal).

Image

(vertical left to right) :

African seed pod, agogo bells, South American shaker pair, African triple seed pod, Egyptian tambourine. And (horizontal left to right): maracas, Indian shaker, African hand bell, weird six belled thing, African seed pod, Saharan clatterers.

Image

(vertical left to right) :

Balinese xylophone, Egyptian horsehair stringed instrument, Indian gopichand, mbira, South American rattler. And (left to right): Peruvian giant ocarina, berimbau.

Image

Steve Palmer's studio. Spanish guitar and Vintage bass in shot.

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 18, 2007 8:16 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

The above-mentioned 'Postvorta' and 'Starhenge' are about to be re-released
on Ambientlive, as a double album for the price of one, more news later.

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 18, 2007 8:48 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

Great you can count me in.

Would like to pre-order it

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Last edited by Vignoble @ Co. on Sat Aug 18, 2007 12:45 pm; edited 1 time in total

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 18, 2007 9:00 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

I'll be ordering as well...
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 12, 2007 7:48 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

Very cool collection. Much cooler than people who collect old Beanie Babys or old Coke cans/bottles.
I bet there's some great histories and stories behind each one of those instruments.

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 13, 2007 12:39 pm    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

There are!

I'll try to remember them, then post here...

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2007 1:11 pm    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

Strange Stories and Terrific Trivia of the Instruments

a. The Turkish oud. This wasn

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2007 1:17 pm    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

Got a Kangling Steve?
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2007 3:28 pm    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

No, but I'd sure like a Tibetan thigh bone!

The mighty Phil Thornton used one such instrument on some of his early works that he recorded with Steve Cragg.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 08, 2007 3:18 pm    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

Hi Steve,

Been meaning to reply to your thread for ages - moving house and computer problems held me back

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 12, 2007 4:03 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

Some lovely instruments there Andy. I also have a couple of African drums and an Indonesian gourd shaker.
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 12, 2007 9:41 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

« solitaryzen » wrote:
Some lovely instruments there Andy. I also have a couple of African drums and an Indonesian gourd shaker.


Thanks Steve, what sort of African drums you got?

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 16, 2007 5:28 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

« Seren » wrote:
« solitaryzen » wrote:
Some lovely instruments there Andy. I also have a couple of African drums and an Indonesian gourd shaker.


Thanks Steve, what sort of African drums you got?


Just a djembe, and this one ?:

Image

I actually used this on the "Distant Land" piece that was added to the jukebox recently (along with a tongue drum).

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 16, 2007 9:13 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

Hi Steve,

I'm not an expert on world drums, this one
Image
looks very similar to some of the Japanese drums used in Taiko and some temple drums which are hung up by the rings. Is this possible?

bet she sounds great

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 17, 2007 2:51 am    (No subject) Reply with quoteBack to top

That is quite possible - it actually belonged to a former girlfriend of mine originally, and I always assumed it was African. You could very well be right though - it does have a drum head on either side (producing subtly different pitches), and the ring does suggest it is designed to be hung up.
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