Wood makes the sound go ’round

If you travel to Phoenix, go to the Musical Instrument Museum. You can drink an iced coffee before you go, you’ll need the energy. But then go right away. 

Among the thousands of objects on display, one special exhibit currently devotes itself to Congolese masks and music and I promise it will blow your mind even if you’ve never had an interest in African rhythms or dance. It turns out these are less often face masks than they are full bodysuits and the person who wears one summons magic, especially for initiations of boys into adulthood.

Wherever I go, I like to see women represented; in movies, in music, and dance. That doesn’t always happen. So while I was disappointed that only men take part in the ritual dances of this part of the world, I noted that they sort of make up for it with their cross dressing costumes to represent the strength of the female gender.

Note the breasts. And I could not help but think that the Congolese women probably play a rather large role in crafting these costumes. The sleeves and torso are woven somehow with a jute-like material; sometimes dyed and fastened with cowrie shells. How did these women make these garments? I wondered. I wanted to see the patterns, the looms. Or was the fiber somehow knitted?  The otherwise elaborate placards did not say. I am always interested in how something is made as much as the finished product. 

Which is why when I went back in the museum to the American instruments  I was fascinated by the wood instruments, all of them made by hand. There are thousands of string and wood designs throughout MIM. Some are put together with animal skins, like this harp-lute from Guinea.

Some are large, like this guitarrom from Southern Honduras.

Or this gigantic Mando-bass made in Chicago in 1913, with an interior label that boasts it has “the greatest power of tone the world has ever heard.”

But I digress.

The exhibit I thought really excelled showed a Martin workshop complete with all the tools of the trade. The museum info talked about the development of the Dreadnought guitar, its larger body, wider waist and tapered shoulders, the difference of its frets, how it became the premier guitar in America (Martin helped fund the exhibit.)

But what did I like the most? The fact that clothespins are used in the modeling of the musical form.

Wood shaping wood, wood making music.

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