Art and Music      
Chianciano Biennale


Finding The Bamboo Zither

HALLER: We should all have in our heads a little soundtrack event for momentous chance findings. I'm recommending the very unexposed tubular bamboo zither as the Eureka sound effect for the objet trouve.  I've been charmed by a whole cd of this sonic joy, found while rummaging in the ground zero area of a financially blasted music distribution warehouse.  

Known in its cultural home of Madagascar as the valiha, this is a surprisingly complete musical tool. Like a guitar, it does chorded wonder and solo magic, though its particular sonic gemutlichkeit has the brittle attack of a dulcimer. It is more versatile, however. I'd say it was less pristine and unearthly than a harp, and it lacks the aristocratic nostalgia of the Central European zither. The sound is what you might expect from a handmade version of all three.

The use of bicycle brake cables around a cylindrical bamboo tube resonator gives each plucked sound an irregular decay and a beautifully lopsided feel, like a ramshackle cart on a bumpy dust road or the flutter of many wings. Since the strings are finger-played by both hands, the variety of sounds responds to an immense range of tactile approaches.

Of Indonesian origin, its development on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar meant an exciting collision with African rhythms and jazz elements. This is the kind of joyful material you hope to find when music rummaging.

There is a kind of finding that artists know well; a happy accidental kind of find that occurs when you are searching for you know not what... and then suddenly! Cue the valiha. It's just right.

Collectors also know how you can often have the object in your hands and still not know its beauty. The covers of great found records are often quite unappetising, like this German-pressed CD put together by musicologist Birger Gesthuisen - Madagaskar 3 Valiha (Feuer Und Eis FUEC 712) - with its insipid-toned watercolour of a barefoot cowboy in a desert apparently playing with a dick the size of a rolled-up beach mat. It wasn't cock-rock. This is, indeed, how the valiha is played, with one end of the tube braced in the loins and with both hands caressing its proud verticality.

The fight is on to save the instrument on its increasingly violent island home. Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo, leader of the Malagasay group, Tarika, has helped set up the Valiha High, a school that aims to use valihas to charm the young away from street corner video stalls showing violence and porn - a phenomenon that has even destroyed cinemas on the island.

A valiha costs 40,000 Malagasay Francs or £5 ($8) - enough money to feed a whole family in Madagascar for four days. With a little help, these well-meaning musicians can develop talent, artistry, and satisfaction amongst the island's young, and keep valihas playing among the sounds of giant hissing roaches and festive roaring lemurs.




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2010-02-20 20:14:59
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