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(originally written for Pagan Dawn magazine)
My father used to sing that the string has broken
The mouthbow is one of those instruments whose origins could truly be said to be lost in the mists of time. Almost certainly humankind’s first stringed instrument it seems to be present on every continent (if you include Papua New Guinea as part of Australasia), although it is of course impossible to know whether this means it came out of Africa with our distant ancestors, or has been independently invented in many places since.
There is no great structural difference between a bow used to play music, to hunt, or as part of a bow drill used to light fires. Indeed a single bow can be used for all three purposes. Which was its original function is anyone's guess.
In Europe the famous Sorcerer of Les Trois-Frères, in Ariège, France, appears to be playing a mouthbow. He stands at the centre of a herd of animals, dressed in skins and dancing. This cave painting is dated to between thirteen and fifteen thousand years ago, and if we are interpreting the image correctly (it is still a matter of debate) it is great evidence for the use of this instrument in hunting magic or religious ritual by our distant ancestors (fig 1).
The musical bow survived in Europe into early modern times as a folk instrument, but not played with the mouth. Rather a resonator of some sort was jammed between the stick and the bow and the instrument itself plucked or 'bowed' in the manner of a cello, with a conventional horsehair bow or even a notched stick. With an animal bladder or cigar box as the resonator this instrument was used to accompany Mummer's Plays and Morris Dance in England until quite recently, and in this form was called a humstrum.
It was African slaves and Native Americans who brought the musical bow as a mouth tuned instrument back into Western consciousness. It became part of Appalachian Folk Music, was popularised by the singer Buffy Sainte-Marie (who is Native American) and is now being used more widely by musicians seeking primal sounds.
How to Make
Making your mouthbow couldn't be simpler. It is the world's most basic stringed instrument! You will need to find a clear branch, without side branches, about the length of your arm and roughly the thickness of your little finger. It mustn't be too green and bendy, neither should it be dead or it will be brittle. Hazel works very well. Find a strong well established tree and be respectful of the fact that you will be cutting a living branch. See if you can find a crossing or damaged branch whose removal would do the tree a favour. Cut this branch from the tree with a sharp knife or saw so as to leave a clean wound which will heal quickly (fig 2).
Cut a notch in both sides close to the end of the stick. Repeat at the other end. These notches help to stop the string slipping off (fig 3).
Now tie your string to one end. You can string a mouthbow with a great variety of materials. Presumably sinew or gut was used on the first instruments, and certainly gut has a very distinctive sound. Genuine gut is expensive, but I have found that 2mm garden strimmer line or tennis racket string replicates the sound of gut well, closer than nylon guitar strings, though these are of course an option. Most modern players of the instrument both in Africa and in the West use thin steel wire, Africans often obtaining this from motorcycle tyres. Thin musical instrument wire (0.16 gauge), or a guitar top E string is a good substitute. Thicker music wire works passably too, and I recycle my phosphor bronze mandolin strings this way! A string that is too thick however will sound dull. Waxed hemp, twisted silk and horsehair have all been used in the past, though I find horsehair too quiet.
Put one end of the bow against something solid (like a wall) and bend it with your chest. This leaves your hands free to tie the other end of the string. Alternatively find a friend to help (fig 4). Take care when using music wire, the ends are sharp. String and bow can move with some force if either should snap. Your bow is finished!
How to Play
You might like to find a small stick to play it with, (it's best if this is a well seasoned twig of some hardwood like oak, take the bark off to leave a smooth hard surface). Some people like to play with a guitar pick or you could just pluck with your finger.
Hold the mouthbow in your unfavoured hand (ie left if you are right handed) and press it firmly against your opposite side cheek, next to your mouth (ie right cheek if you are holding it with your left hand). Open your mouth behind the stick, and try to make the inside of your mouth as large as possible, as if you were trying to take a big mouthful of water. Pluck, hit or strum the string with your other hand, quite close to your mouth. The photo shows Kate, who is left-handed (fig 5). Photos of me just look like I'm strumming my beard...
You can change the sound by changing the size and shape of the inside of your mouth. You'll notice that individual notes can be 'pulled out' of the drone note by precise control, these notes are the notes of the harmonic series, the same notes produced by overtone singing or by a simple brass instrument without valves like a bugle. If you have ever played a Didjeridu or Jaw Harp the technique for finding these notes is very similar.
With practise and experimentation you can increase the volume of the harmonics in relation to the drone sound of the string. It’s also possible to bend the stick as you play, which shifts the fundamental pitch of the string and therefore all the harmonics, and to damp the string with the non-plucking hand to emphasise a counter rhythm. You can sing and play at the same time. Since a video is worth at least two thousand words I would recommend you watch the beautiful Buffy Sainte-Marie play the mouthbow on You-Tube (search for "Buffy Sainte-Marie demonstrates the mouth bow").
How to Use
The mouthbow is a very personal instrument, it is relatively quiet and the rich harmonics are audible mainly to the player. It’s also very hard to amplify, a vocal mike tends to capture mostly the string sound and not the harmonics. In an attempt to capture the full sound experience of the player people have even experimented with small microphones inside their mouths! However the fact that the sound is generated inside the head of the player along with the healing nature of the harmonic series and the rhythmic movement makes this a wonderful tool for inducing trance or just relaxing. At least the neighbours won't mind...
Corwen is a musician and musical instrument maker, specialising in the ancient instruments of Northern Europe. He makes instruments for sale and also plays with his partner Kate Fletcher in the duo Rigantona, who are available for handfastings, festivals etc. www.ancientmusic.co.uk
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