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Digging the Fifties | Part 6

The NMM is excited to bring to you this series of musical delights. Written by curator Ana Sofia Silva, "Digging the Fifties" takes readers through some unseen highlights of our collections, with intriguing stories, commentary, photos and more, celebrating our 50th Anniversary with 50 objects extraordinaire. Read more below to see how we're "Digging the Fifties!"

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Digging the Fifties

A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections

By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator

The NMM collections include representative examples of folk, indigenous, and global musical instruments. Travel around the world in this installment and discover the stories behind a Nigerien trumpet (NMM 02750), an arched harp from Cameroon (NMM 05050), a set of Indian “gurdwara” cymbals (NMM 03050), a Mexican folk violin (NMM 06750), and a set of Bolivian panpipes (NMM 12150).

One of the most common names for a type of long natural trumpets found in West Africa is kakaki. These are used in traditional ceremonial music of the Hausa, one of the largest ethnic groups in West and Central Africa, with a particular concentration in northern Nigeria and southern Niger. While its origins may be older, documented history from the 16th century indicates that the kakaki was formerly used in military music as a signaling instrument. Today, it is mostly associated with Islamic functions in ceremonial occasions. NMM 02750 is a Nigerien kakaki that also has a double-bell feature, which amplifies its sound. It was collected by Jean Jenkins (1922–1990), who was the first Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum in London. As one of Horniman's first female curators, American-born ethnomusicologist Jenkins emigrated to the United Kingdom (UK) in 1949 and played a key role in the UK's knowledge of world music. In the early 1970s, leading to the World of Islam Festival in 1976, she was commissioned by the Festival Trust to acquire a large collection of musical instruments to be featured in a special exhibit at the Horniman, “Music and Musical Instruments in the World of Islam,” which she curated as part of the festival event. Because of its association with Islam, NMM 2750 was among those instruments collected and exhibited. A few correspondence files and fieldnotes in the Jean Jenkins Collection, now housed at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, establish that she worked with the Musée National du Niger (today Musée National Boubou Hama, in Niamey) to acquire a group of Nigerien instruments for this purpose, in which the double-bell kakaki is listed. A few years later after the festival, the Trust placed part of the collection for auction, and the NMM acquired the kakaki in 1980. It is made in three main sections of white-colored metal, most probably tinplate (fer blanc), with an integral mouthpiece. One can blow two principal notes out of it, and it is most normally played in groups as a court ensemble. Occasionally, it can be played as a solo instrument to herald high officials. The conical bells are decorated with embossed geometrical motifs and the thin bell rims feature copper rings.

A long silver straight trumpet with two bells on a white background.
Kakaki, Niger, ca. 1975. NMM 02750. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

Many types of arched harps can also be found throughout Africa, but the many regional variations share the same basic structural components: a neck fitted with tuning pegs to which the strings are attached; a resonator, which usually is a hollow body covered with animal skin that functions as a soundtable; and either a string-holder or a bridge at the other end of the strings. NMM 05050 is of the type of arched harps that has a string-holder that lies under the soundtable, also known as longitudinal string-holders because they are parallel to the centerline of the soundtable and are in line with the neck. The body is made from a hollowed log carved into a boat-like shape, with two knob ends to which the skin is stretched and attached. The skin is also laced at the bottom of the body. The neck fits into a socket joint carved at one of those knob ends. The harp has five strings made of vegetable fibers. This instrument was collected in Garoua, in north Cameroon, by Verna Brynhilda Syverson (1924–2003), who was a former missionary for the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) in the area. Born near Trail, Minnesota, Syverson attended Bemidji State University, the Lutheran Bible Institute in Minneapolis, and taught in local schools before going to parish work. She was commissioned into foreign mission work in 1960 and was assigned to the ELC Sudan Mission in Cameroon, where she worked in the orphanage in Meiganga. After serving 30 years in the mission field, she retired and returned to St. Paul, and later McIntosh, Minnesota. Syverson donated this harp to the NMM in 1990. According to her, she obtained the harp from a local young man who made and played it in the late 1980s. As usual with African harps of this kind, the player would use the harp as accompaniment to his singing, and although there is the possibility of this instrument being made for the tourist market, the design is similar to the five-string ganzavar or ganjavar harps used in the Mafa culture of the region.

A tan arched harp on a white background.
Arched harp, Garoua, Cameroon, ca. 1988, NMM 05050. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

A series of brass cymbals hanging on a vertical piece of rope on a white background.
Cymbals, India, ca. 1949–1973. NMM 03050. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

A few of these non-Western instruments just presented were featured on display at the NMM in the former Beede Gallery on the second floor of the Carnegie building, which was officially dedicated in 1986 when the NMM completed one of its major renovation projects back then, in which Dr. Beede had played a major role. Grace Lucile Beede (1905–1990), a native of South Dakota and member of one of Vermillion's pioneer families, devoted her life to the development of the classics and support of the arts. During her tenure time at USD between 1928 and 1970, she became a notable figure in her field, inspired countless students who had distinguished careers themselves, and contributed to the community and the arts. She was involved with the NMM from the very beginning as a founding member, a secretary in the early formative years, and later elected as an honorary trustee because of her continuous and generous commitment to the museum. She also donated some instruments, like NMM 03050, a set of “gurdwara” cymbals. These small brass cymbals were made in India and imported to the U.S. by S. S. Sarna, a famous company established by Sajjan Singh Sarna (1897–1978). Originally from Rawalpindi, a city in the Punjab region of Pakistan, Sarna came to America in 1920. In the late 1930s, he had established himself in New York as a wholesaler, specializing in bringing Indian articles to America, mostly textiles, incense, and brass items. The trademarks of "Sarna Brass" and "Bells of Sarna" were registered by him and became very popular during the 1960s. A peculiarity of this bell trade was that each bell was sold with a colorful accompanying story tag with the name of the bell, its purpose, and its history. This promotion strategy allowed Sarna to create a successful business offering many kinds of bells, but it was mainly aimed at the ornamental market of American homes. As such, most of the bells were sold in sets with hanging cords for decorative purposes rather than as musical instruments. NMM 3050 is no exception. While the tag story associated with this set talks briefly about cymbals being used in gurdwara temples for Sikh celebrations, this type of small brass cymbals would most probably be used in pairs as finger or hand cymbals, not suspended like this. The tag story continues its Indian reminiscence by providing a recipe for Indian Halwa, a typical sweet pudding—such was Sarna's cleverness in promoting his products.

A pair of colorful red and green printed paper tags describing how to play the set of cymbals.
Detail of promotional tags that accompanied NMM 03050. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

A plain carved folk-fiddle on a white background.
Raberi, Rarámuri people, Chihuahua, Mexico, ca. 1985. NMM 06750. Photo by Bill Willroth Sr.

Taking a geographical continental leap, NMM 06750 takes us to the Chihuahua state in northern Mexico. This folk violin, also known as raberi, was made by the Rarámuri (Tarahumara) people of the region and it is a typical example of their traditional handcrafted instruments. Although size and proportions may vary, the raberi derives from Renaissance and Baroque violins brought to Mexico by the Spanish, and to the Rarámuri by the Catholic clergy. It preserves very ancient types of violin construction, similar to how inexpensive violins would have been made in the 16th century, but made with locally harvested materials and tools. Because of that early development, these instruments are sometimes thought of as one of America's first schools of violin making. If one contemplates that the Rarámuri have been making violins since the mid-1500s, they are placed in the same timeline as some of the earliest violin makers of the Amati family in Cremona, Italy. The instruments are usually unvarnished, have metal strings (a more convenient alternative that replaced original animal gut strings), and are played with horsehair bows. The raberi is an essential element of the Rarámuri life and culture, as it is integrated into many indigenous festivals, ceremonies, and customs such as running races—the Rarámuri also being known for their long-distance running traditions. For instance, during special running gatherings (carreras de bola), violinists can play particular tunes to conjure different forces to support and inspire the runners: chomarí (venado, deer) for speed, rowí (conejo, rabbit) for agility, and shorachike (corazon, heart) for endurance. This particular example was collected by Hazel Marie (Stegen) Dempster (1917–1992) during a train tour through the Copper Canyon in the late 1980s. She purchased it from local artisans at the Divisadero station, one of the iconic train stops along the “El Chepe” route. Years later, her husband Adrian Robert Dempster (1916–2005) donated it to the NMM in 1999. They resided in Sioux Falls, where Hazel taught at Washington High School.

A set of panpipes on a white background.
Panpipes, La Paz, Bolivia, ca. 1993. NMM 12150. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

Moving further south, the journey continues with NMM 12150, a set of Bolivian panpipes. As one of the earliest musical instruments represented in various arts throughout history, panpipes are probably one of the most recognizable types of musical instruments that people know of. In their most simple form, panpipes consist of a number of pipes of graduated lengths assembled together usually in the form of a raft, but their worldwide distribution makes them as varied as possible. Depending on the geographical region and the associated culture, we can find them under various names, using many materials, and of diverse forms, as is typical with global instruments. In Bolivia, the panpipes one will encounter are generally known as the South American Andean panpipes, because they are spread throughout the length of the Andes Mountains chain. Though they can assume different names depending on the type of instrument (different shapes, sizes, and tunings), in general, the panpipes of the Bolivian Altiplano are known in the indigenous Aymara language as siku. The NMM example is made with 13 pipes assembled in a double row, or double rank, and bears an inscription “Walata/LA PAZ – BOLIVIA.” Walata Grande is a village on the highlands around the city of La Paz, known as a center of urban-dwelling flute makers from the specialized Aymara flute-making community. Although there is a musical instrument shop “Walata, El Sonido de los Andes” in the touristic Linares street in La Paz, this instrument was most probably made in the Walata region rather than “by Walata” maker. It was acquired new by collectors Paul and Jean Christian, from St. Paul, Minnesota, in the Bolivia booth of the Minnesota State Fair in 1993. As such, this instrument is most probably one of those that Hachmeyer, in his analytical work of contemporary Bolivian flute-making as a result of historical transformations, shifting markets, and sustainability of materials, identifies within the “touristic sphere” of contemporary flute-making. Many Walateño flute makers craft flutes destined for national and international tourism markets, as handicrafts. As such, these flutes often lose their musical purpose and are transformed into souvenirs, made in a semi-industrial mode of manufacture (Hachmeyer, 2021). The Christians donated this instrument, as well as a large collection of instruments and archives to the NMM in 2006.

Stay tuned for more posts in this special curatorial series - Digging the Fifties!



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