Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The instrument that I am playing in the picture above is a Bulbul Tarang, which means "waves of nightingales". It sounds like anything but a nightingale, in fact its other name, the "Indian Banjo" is perhaps a rather crude but more apt description in terms of what it sounds like.
In Japan, a similar instrument exists called a Taishogoto, while the German Akkordolia operates in a similar manner.
Like the autoharp it is an instrument often used by the more untrained musician and in the bulbul's case also by the elderly in large ensembles as a form of occupational therapy. Having said this I have observed footage displaying amazing virtuosity on both the autoharp and bulbul, but for the novice player they do offer fairly instant gratification.
It consists of a fretboard of multiple strings usually tuned to the same note or octaves of each other. There are also lower drone strings that do not get fretted by the rather ingenious key operated fretting mechanism that changes the pitch of the main strings to provide a melody.
This particular instrument came into my possession through a good friend who spotted it in a junk shop and instantly thought of me and my fondness for odd sound making devices. The problem was that it was in pieces and without a name or description. Whatever parts there were, were incomplete.
The first clue was a little piece of paper still attached to the box showing a rather faint diagram of what the instrument was meant to resemble.
Using this and the resources on the Internet, within a couple of weeks a few links were found which provided a name to the instrument and some vague descriptions of how it worked. The crucial bit of information around how the keying mechanism worked, however, remained elusive. There were only a handful of resources sites compared to the many videos and websites that have cropped up since and a series of emails between me and a seller of exotic instruments stopped dead when he discovered I wasn't actually interested in buying anything from him.
The second important lead was when I received an email from a musician friend of mine who knew of my dilemma in rebuilding this instrument and informed me that he had spotted something similar at an acquaintance's house. I abruptly got this person's contact details and paid him a visit.
This guy was a true collector of stringed instruments and I was given a fascinating tour of his collections of zithers, psalteries, guitarras, banjos and yes, there in the corner was a bulbul.
This one was slightly different in that it contained only 3 melody strings, but crucially the spring operated keying system looked very similar.
He very kindly allowed me to borrow his instrument for a couple of weeks so I could carefully take it apart and take some detailed photos and notes. The elegance and simplicity of the key, spring and pivot rod design struck me as so intuitive that I really should have worked it out if there weren't so many original parts missing. Most of these were quite simple to fashion from wire, wood and metal pins.
The final hurdle was the manufacture of the actual keys. There are supposed to be 21 keys but only 7 were present in the odds and ends that I was given. These were quite hardy hand cut metal keys (I suspect this instrument had already been repaired at least once or at least an attempt had been made - to add to the confusion) and I did not want to get into hours of hacksaw and metal file work in order to manufacture the remaining keys, so it was very fortunate that another friend of mine recommended a company that did metal cutting to specification using water jets. I was able to convince them to do the job for a pittance as they could see I was not going into any major mass production manufacture enterprise.
After a few weekends and a ton of assistance from my father, who is far more coordinated than I am and very capable in realm of DIY, it was ready to play. It's a little creaky and some of the keys stick a little but it is really sweet sounding.
It is great to overdub melodies with and the droney-ness of the sound combined with a little reverb really sits well in a mix. You can hear it overdubbed on the songs 'Luminarc' and 'I Will Rise Up' on my album 'Outer Tumbolia'. We have also fitted a guitar pickup to it in order to use it live. I am currently using in a more upfront manner making it a more dominant part in some of the newer material I am writing.
I'll end off this post with a video of a combined bulbul and autoharp performance. If not the most virtuosic performance, it certainly is the most endearing
27 chord autoharp and two Taisho Koto's used in performing Robert Wyatt's 'Alifib'