Sometime during the last weekend of July 2023, previously confiscated musical instruments were collected and publicly burned in the Afghan province of Herāt. The head of the local office of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Aziz al-Rahman al Muhajir, justified the burning by saying that music leads to moral corruption. Apparently string instruments, a harmonium, a tabla, and electronic amplifiers were burned. Performing music in public has been banned in Afghanistan since 2021.
Music has long been a controversial topic in Islam. Although the Islamic world has birthed rich and brilliant musical cultures, some Muslims nevertheless believe that music, especially instrumental music, causes people to go astray by indulging in sensual pleasures. The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic nationalist and pro-Pashtun movement founded in the early 1990s, rose to power in 1996 and subsequently banned the public performance of music and imposed numerous other restrictions on musical life. The group ruled around three-quarters of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 before being overthrown after an invasion led by the United States. The group regained power over the entire country following the August 2021 departure of coalition forces.
Speaking in July 2023, Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, likened the Taliban’s actions to “cultural genocide and musical vandalism”. Now living in Portugal, Sarmast says, “The people of Afghanistan have been denied artistic freedom . . . The burning of musical instruments in Herat is just a small example of the cultural genocide that is taking place in Afghanistan under the leadership of the Taliban.”
Read on MGG Online.
Below is a performance of the Afghani rabāb accompanied by tabla at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Baluchis Spread out across Pakistan, Iran, and Muscat, the Baluchi people are as complex and diverse as the landscapes that they inhabit. Baluchistan, the largest Pakistani province, is home to the Baluch as well as a rich geography, culture, and history. Its hardy mountains, though imposing at a distance, harbor beautiful secret alcoves. Its picturesque coastlines sketch a region that has proven both alluring and inaccessible to those who set their sights on it from Cyrus the Great to the modern-day ethnomusicologists. For better or worse, Baluchistan remains an unexplored cultural and geographical wonderland to the outside world.
The Baluchi people and their music bear testament to historical cross-pollination. The Iranian-descended Baluchis have freely mixed with Arabs and Siddis/Sheedis of African origin to create a unique culture. In their music, percussive, driving African rhythms intermingle with a unique melodic idiom, akin to ragas and maqams but standing apart from both. Their repertory ranges from songs of love (dastanag), loss (zahiroh), as well as music to accompany zar and gawati healing rituals and assimilated fishermen songs (amba). The meditative, Sufi-inspired religiosity espoused by the Baluchis also colors their music–manifesting in persistent, repetitive melodic motifs that gradually shift over time.
The benju It is no surprise that the benju, a unique keyboard-fitted zither, evolved in Karachi given the diversity of influences in the region. It was brought to Baluchi shores at the cusp of the 19th century by Japanese sailors, as the local telling of the story goes. This now-ubiquitous instrument arrived as the taishogoto, or nagoya harp, a children’s toy. From these humble beginnings, it has evolved to become a staple instrument in Baluchi folk music.
Over the last century, Baluchi people living in Iran and Pakistan have enlarged the humble taishogoto, adding up to six strings and row of keys, a larger, more resonant body, as well as electric pickups. This upgrade resulted from both necessity and ingenuity as the region has been subject to historical poverty and has had limited economic means and access to parts and reliable materials.
The benju produces a culturally espoused, rich overtone and shadow-notes-laden sound while its soft keys facilitate great melismatic virtuosity. Both hands divide the labors of musicmaking equally with the left playing keys while the other strums strings with a plectrum adding drones as required. However, its one limitation is that it cannot play the lyrical inflections and glissandos that typify the music of the region–a problem shared by the harmonium, the other imported instrument now part and parcel of North Indian and Pakistani music. Despite this drawback, the benju can be heard in many different social contexts. It is equally at home playing folk tunes or being broadcasted over regional TV or radio programs. It is played at rural weddings as well as in urban contexts where its loudness is greatly desired.
The man The benju has become quite popular recently thanks to the Pakistani virtuoso Ustad Noor Bakhsh. His ten-country European tour this past summer left audiences ecstatic and exhausted from dancing for hours to his irrepressible rhythms. Although Noor Bakhsh was already a local legend in his native Baluchistan for decades, his recent international recognition came about through the efforts of the Heidelberg-educated anthropologist, Daniyal Ahmed, whose fieldwork and managerial expertise have catapulted Noor into the global spotlight. Daniyal found him through videos of his virtuosic yet deeply spiritual playing, which have been widely circulated on social media for the past few years. “It took me four years to head out to find him, no thanks to COVID-19”, says Daniyal. “I was glad that I found him.”
Daniyal attributes the vitality of Noor Bakhsh’s music to his personality. He says that Noor loves to eat daal and naan–staples of Pakistani and North Indian cuisine–and is compelled to improvise by a primal energy that emanates from deep within him. According to Daniyal, “[Noor] is an amazing storyteller, steeped in the folk tales, myths, and legends of his people, collected over decades as he played for gavati and damali trance ceremonies, as well as through his many journeys across the wide expanse of Makran, Pasni, and Quetta. Plus, his whimsicality and sense of humor are as formidable as his musicality.”
Noor Bakhsh’s musicianship bears an indelible imprint of his sojourning; he stands out from his peers and defies tradition in a number of important ways. Firstly, unlike the six-stringed benju favored by other Baluchi folk musicians, he plays a five-stringed one, which he has electrified with a single-coil pickup affixed with a rubber band. He amplifies this with a locally engineered hybrid amp, powered by Phillips-Holland tubes that have been out of production since the 1970’s, and a Toyota car speaker. He has powered this rough-and-tumble setup for the last two decades with a car battery and a small solar panel, underscoring the ingenuity of the Baluchi people.
There is also the case of his musicianship. Noor is profoundly inspired by nature, especially birdsong, as evident on his 2022 album Jingul, which was released to global acclaim. From tuning his benju in line with the climate to eschewing tempered scales, Noor creates an atmosphere of deep spirituality and connectedness from the outset. His eclectic personality informs his extroverted style, adorning deeply lyrical phrases with florid passagework that delights the imagination and resists easy categorization. As Daniyal notes, “[Noor’s] fresh and experimental approach to presenting folk tunes borrows from many sources, including Baluchi zahireg, syncretic melodic frameworks influenced by Arabic and Hindustani traditions. However, Noor also adds Western-inspired triads and scalar runs to the expected trills and flourishes of his region’s repertory, wandering from one tune to another and back, building up to an ecstatic crescendo.”
Noor’s journey Hearing the jubilation in Noor’s music makes the particulars of his life ever more surprising. Born in Gaddani to an iterant family of goatherders of the zangeshahi clan, music was an integral part of Noor’s life. He was initiated into music by master musicians Khuda Bakhsh and Rehmat in his early teens, and he has lived a full and difficult life since that time. Noor spent decades accompanying famous Baluch singer Sabzal Sami, honing his craft, gaining local renown as a master instrumentalist, and losing loved ones and navigating other personal tragedies before eventually settling in a village near Pasni, where he has lived for the last two decades. The arid rocky landscape of his native Baluchistan seeped deeply into his creative ethos. It is no wonder that hearing Noor Bakhsh play in Amsterdam, the Dutch wife of the desert-blues musician Ali Farka Touré cried out, “Ali, you’re alive!”
For all his musical aptitude, Ustad Noor Bakhsh remains childlike at heart in the best of ways. “While other musicians from his social class would have been wowed by the architecture and economic splendor of Europe”, says Daniyal, “all Noor could focus on were the sounds of his precious birds. That’s the man that he is, at once fully alive and immersed in the world, while being completely removed from it.”
–Written by Ali Hassan, a versatile singer, percussionist, an aspiring ethnomusicologist, and a multicultural composer-producer from Karachi, Pakistan. Ali is currently an intern at RILM.
Listen to Noor Bakhsh’s music here: https://honiunhoni.bandcamp.com/album/jingul
Watch a video of Noor performing below.
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“After being in Vietnam for over two weeks visiting all possible leads on musical instruments, I was struck with a mild case of musical instrument information overload. One day, I wandered into the central part of Hồ Chí Minh to buy something for my lunch. There, I spotted the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum.
I deliberated, will I or won’t I go in? I supposed they were probably going to close for the midday intermission soon but I decided to give it a quick look. Entering the gates I spotted the ticket office, enquired as to their operating hours, and asked if there were any musical instruments on display. Yes, they were open and yes, they had musical instruments on display. Hip hip!
Wandering around the museum, I found that most of the few musical instruments were already entered in my notes. Therefore, I was thrilled when I stumbled upon the mõ đình, a log slit drum. My last steps were to be the gift shop where I looked eagerly through the books, hoping that one may have information on musical instruments. I was disappointed to find most related to the Vietnam War. I did, however, procure two inexpensive musical instruments–a song loan and a sênh suứ.
Upon leaving, I was surprised to notice one last hidden room down a small hallway. I found two instruments I’d never seen, read of, or been told about before – the chordophones đàn măng đôlin (similar to the mandolin) and the đàn octavina (comparable to the steel string guitar). Both had been adapted from their western equivalent, with a ribbed fingerboard, like the lục huyền cầm (Vietnamese Guitar). I never did get lunch that day, opting instead to visit the Traditional Musical Instruments and Costume Showroom, two blocks away. Sadly this showroom has since closed down.”
The above excerpt is taken from Terry Moran’s Vietnamese musical instruments: A monographic lexicon. (2020). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME), and read up on all the Vietnamese instruments he mentions here.
Above are two musicians performing in a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Below is a video of a musician playing the đàn măng đôlin, an Vietnamese instruments similar to the mandolin.
The frequencies of pitches produced by a musical instrument are determined by the physical properties of the instrument. Consequently, by measuring the frequency of a pitch, one can infer information about the instrument’s physical properties. By modifying a musical instrument to contain a sample and then analyzing the instrument’s pitch, one can make precision measurements of the physical properties of the sample.
Researchers used the mbira, a 3000-year-old African instrument that consists of metal tines attached to a wooden board; these tines are plucked to play musical pitches. By replacing the mbira’s tines with bent steel tubing, filling the tubing with a sample, using a smartphone to record the sound while plucking the tubing, and measuring the frequency of the sound using a free software tool available on their website, they could measure the density of the sample with a resolution of about 0.012 g/mL.
To demonstrate the mbira sensor’s capabilities, they used it to successfully distinguish diethylene glycol and glycerol, two similar chemicals that are sometimes mistaken for each other in pharmaceutical manufacturing (leading to hundreds of deaths).
Unlike existing tools for measuring density, the mbira sensor can be made and used by virtually anyone in the world with access to a smartphone and the free software tool posted on the Internet. Among many possible applications, consumers could use mbira sensors to detect counterfeit and adulterated medications (which represent around 10% of all medications in low- and middle-income countries).
This according to “Musical instruments as sensors” by Heran C. Bhakta, Vamsi K. Choday, and William H. Grover (ACS omega III  11026–32; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-95175). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this article to our attention!
Above, (A, left to right) a conventional mbira, the same instrument with the tines replaced by a length of stainless steel tubing bent into a U shape, and an example easily made from scrap lumber and hardware; (B) the method of using an mbira sensor; and (C) a waveform plot of a sound recording of plucking an mbira sensor, obtained using a smartphone’s voice recorder app and the free online software tool.
It was this annual celebration that brought the chapel to the attention of the Berlin artist and musician Carsten Nicolai, who was scouting for a location for an installation for the project 500 Kirchen—500 Ideen, which sought proposals for rescuing some of the many more or less abandoned Protestant churches in central Germany (2000 in Thuringia alone).
The resulting work, installed in 2017, is a sculptural piece entitled organ. A pyrophone built by Frank Fietzek in which gas flames generate sound by disturbing the airflow in 25 glass cylinders, the work/instrument is programmed to play a 12-minute piece composed for it by Nicolai. It has also been used for improvisation, and its presence has made the church a popular venue for various activities organized by both community members and visitors.
This according to “Klang-, Licht- und Wärmespender: Die Feuerorgel von Carsten Nicolai in der St. Annen-Kapelle Krobitz, Thüringen” by Elisa Wrobel (Organ: Journal für die Orgel XXV/4  34–36; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-15515).
The medieval German town Hann. Münden was home to Johann Andreas Eisenbarth (1663–1727), a colorful figure who became a subject of folklore to the extent that fact and fiction are now difficult to untangle.
A celebrated surgeon who was bestowed with privileges by various members of German royalty, Eisenbarth had no formal medical credentials, nor was he ever officially awarded the title “Doctor”. Nevertheless, his skill and medical innovations are matters of historical record, not least his pioneering contributions to the development of cataract surgery.
Reputed to have traveled with an entourage of up to 120 attendants including musicians, acrobats, and clowns, he is said to have plied his trade in a carnival-like atmosphere. The loud music and revelry served both to attract large crowds—potential customers for Eisenbarth’s services and bottled remedies—and to drown out the cries of his patients, who underwent procedures including tooth extractions and amputations in an era before the advent of anesthetics.
In honor of this now semi-legendary resident, a mechanical clock was installed in the upper story of Hann. Münden’s Rathaus in 1980. After the stroke of noon and a brief pause, an automatic carillon plays the tune of the comical song Ich bin der Doktor Eisenbart as automata depict the doctor extracting a huge, bloody tooth from the mouth of a terrified, gesticulating patient restrained by a hammer-wielding attendant. In addition to these central figures, a juggler, an acrobat, and a flag-bearer suggest the festive nature of Eisenbarth’s medical procedures.
This according to “Dr Eisenbarth’s automated musical clock in Hann. Münden” by Mark Singleton and Sven Heinmann (The music box: An international journal of mechanical music XXVIII/5 [spring 2018] pp. 185–87; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-52039).
Today is Eisenbarth’s 360th birthday! Above and below, the good doctor in action.
Today a growing number of Mexican-American musicians in the United States perform on Indigenous Mesoamerican instruments and archaeological replicas in what is widely referred to as Aztec music.
For example, contemporary musicians in Los Angeles draw on legacies of Mexican nationalist music research and integrate applied anthropological and archeological models, showing how musical and cultural frameworks that once served to unite post-revolutionary Mexico have gained new significance in countering Mexican Indigenous erasure in the United States.
This according to “Forging Aztecness: Twentieth-century Mexican musical nationalism in twenty-first century Los Angeles/Forjando el Aztecanismo: Nacionalismo musical mexicano del siglo XX en el siglo XXI en Los Ángeles” by Kristina F. Nielsen (Yearbook for traditional music LII  127–46; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-69466).
Cassandre Balosso-Bardin Associate Professor, University of Lincoln Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 1888 Mary Elizabeth Brown sent out copies of her new catalogue, Musical instruments and their homes, to her many missionary friends across the world; they had helped her to collect instruments from around the globe, leading to an impressive collection of approximately 270 instruments, which she donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889 (Brown 2014).
The subtitle of the catalogue reads: With two hundred and seventy illustrations in pen and ink by Wm. Adams Brown, the whole forming a complete catalogue of the collection of musical instruments now in the possession of Mrs. J. Crosby Brown of New York. As suggested in this lengthy description, the catalogue was beautifully illustrated by Brown’s son, William Adams Brown, with line drawings for each instrument, alongside short descriptions with minimal measurements. W.A. Brown’s contribution is significant: It gives unique pictorial insight into the breadth of the collection, and it adds myriad details that are usually forgotten or glossed over in textual descriptions. His drawings give us a much better understanding of the instruments collected, and may point to unwitting mistakes that, in turn, give us insights into the collecting world of the late 19th century.
As an ethnomusicologist with a specialty in bagpipes, I was particularly fascinated to identify the five examples of this instrument in the catalogue, and to unravel the stories they told. Their wide geographical spread demonstrates the breadth of contacts Mary Elizabeth Brown had, as well as her interest in collecting instruments from around the world, no matter how obscure they might have seemed. The five instruments hail from Scotland, India, Russia, Turkey, and Sclavonia, the latter possibly referring to a region now found in North Eastern Croatia or a former region in the Hungarian territory, or even just Slavic countries in general. If we detail each instrument alongside their illustrations, some discrepancies become clear, and an understanding of the 19th-century collector’s challenges starts to emerge.
The Scottish highland bagpipe listed in the catalogue (p. 335) was obviously well-known enough to not warrant any kind of description beyond its origin (“Scotch”), the fact that it was “modern”’, and the measurement of its bag (1 foot, 3 inches) and longest pipe (3 feet). This instrument (acquisition number 89.4.863) was made by Robert MacKinnon, a Scottish maker active in Glasgow between 1875 and 1902 (a detail omitted by the Browns in the catalogue, possibly because of its contemporary association). This might have made the instrument slightly less attractive than other items hailing from further afield and of rarer provenance.
The other European bagpipe illustrated on the same page presents more of a mystery. It is presented as a bagpipe from Sclavonia: “a very old specimen. The pipes of wood, inlaid with lead. The bag of leather. L. of the longest pipe 45 in. of bag 24 in.” Upon inspection of the illustration, however, the instrument strongly resembles a bagpipe from Central France. This large type of bagpipe, inlaid with pewter, is known to be from the Nivernais region, and its dimensions correspond to one of the grandes cornemuses du Nivernais currently in the Museum’s collection (89.4.860). These types of instruments were older, often made in the 18th century or very early 19th century. Upon closer inspection, one notices that the inlaid pewter is not filed, and that the instrument has not been played, unlike its sister instrument in the collection. Bernard Blanc, a French bagpipe maker specializing in instruments from this region, speculated during his visit to the collection in 1987 that this instrument was probably a copy of an older instrument, made in the 19th century specifically for the collector’s market (Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives).
A stunning instrument collected by Brown is the bagpipe illustrated in the Russian section of the catalogue (p. 347). This instrument takes up a significant amount of textual space in the catalogue, with a lengthy description enveloping the drawing, speaking to its aesthetic value:
The bag made of white skin, undressed. Three pipes, one for the breath, and the other two furnished, one with six and the other with three fingerholes. The extremities of the two latter covered with a cap of wood bound with brass, which is held in place by a leather strap. The pipes and movable cap decorated with imitations of precious stones, and the latter with nineteen small hanging chains. Bag 18x13 in. L. of pipe and cap 17 in.
This instrument is currently in the collection (89.4.318) and it is just as beautiful as the description suggests. The blue, green, and red glass jewels inserted along the finely stamped metallic straps that wrap around the double pipes, along with the small paisley-shaped ornaments hanging from delicate chains at the end of the wooden horn, all contribute to the impression of a fine instrument. While Mary Elizabeth Brown named it simply “bagpipe”, it is currently described as a volynka, a generic Russian term that means “bagpipe”, giving little indication about its regional origin. The instrument’s file notes that in 1977 “a Georgian visitor recognized this instrument as Georgian”. Indeed, the instrument presents all the characteristics of a gudastviri, a Georgian bagpipe, as illustrated on a USSR stamp from 1990 (Figure 3). It is possible that this instrument arrived in the collection among many other Russian instruments, with little attention paid to its actual origin. Brown’s correspondence shows regular contact with a dealer based in Moscow, although this instrument isn’t specifically identified (Brown Correspondence, Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives).
The Turkish bagpipe in the catalogue (p. 209) also presents a few mysteries. The instrument illustrated resembles more a bagpipe that might have been found in Iran (ney-anbān) or the Gulf States rather than in Turkey. Turkey’s two main types of bagpipes in the 19th century were the gaida (or ghaida), a Balkan-type instrument close to the Bulgarian or Macedonian bagpipe, and the tulum, a Mediterranean-type instrument found in a specific region by the Black Sea. While this particular instrument was catalogued as a “ghaida”, it does not resemble either of these instruments. Still in the collection today (89.4.362), its provenance remains a mystery. Could it be that an instrument from a different part of the world made its way to Turkey and was collected as such by Brown’s missionary friends? Brown’s correspondent in Turkey recognized that she did not know much about musical instruments (Brown Correspondence, Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives), which may have contributed to such confusion.
The final bagpipe in Brown’s collection is a bagpipe from Madras (now Chennai), India (p. 87). While it is called a zitty (or titthi) in the catalogue, it is also known as a sruti upanga. This instrument is commonly depicted in nautch performances within a larger group of musicians (see below). Most likely bought in 1886 through Reverend Canklin, who sent a range of instruments from Madras (Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archive), it is still part of the collection (89.4.264). It is material evidence of a bagpipe that was mainly used for accompaniment rather than melody. According to the instrument’s file and further iconographic evidence, the sruti panga was traditionally used to supply drone accompaniment; the fingerholes were not for playing melodies, but were stopped with wax to create different drone pitches.
Brown’s illustrated catalogue is a remarkable document that gives fascinating insights into the collecting world of the late 19th century. William Adam Brown’s drawings allow us to understand both the wide range of instruments collected and the limitations of knowledge at the time, when individuals relied on third-party information to collate instrument files. Often bought and sent by individuals who had little knowledge about instruments, they regularly fell victim to misidentification, at times remaining unidentified for decades until visitors with specific regional knowledge were able to set the records straight.
The catalogue images also reveal the inconsistencies of the 19th-century market, and how collectors might have been taken advantage of by dealers misrepresenting instruments, passing them off as ancient when they were contemporary, most likely to fetch a better price as they played into the collectors’ fascination for antiques.
This unique document shows Brown’s strong will to collect all manner of instruments, no matter how humble or unassuming, providing us with a real global snapshot of the instruments played in the second half of the 19th century. It also highlights the value of accurate illustrations alongside the catalogue entries: Not only do they bring the objects to life, they also enable a much more detailed and in-depth analysis of them, allowing us to re-evaluate the textual descriptions passed down through the years, correcting discrepancies, and providing insights into the work undertaken by 19th-century collectors.
This article was written and published to mark International Bagpipe Day, which is celebrated on 10 March every year. International Bagpipe Day was co-founded by Cassandre Balosso-Bardin in 2012 and is now celebrated across the world. Dr. Balosso-Bardin is the founding director of the International Bagpipe Organisation and is an Associate Professor in Music at University of Lincoln, where she lectures in ethnomusicology. This research was made possible thanks to a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2022–23).
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Joseph Holbrooke’s The bells, op. 50(a), a “dramatic poem” scored for large orchestra and chorus and inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem by the same name, is highly onomatopoeic and describes the sound, function, and effect of four types of bells: sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and funeral bells. A concertina is heard in two sections of the piece: the prelude (section 1) and Iron bells (section 5).
The composer, who had a “lifelong affection for concertinas”, recalled how the instrument was almost cut from the work’s 1906 premiere:
“While I was having my Poem for Orchestra and Chorus, The bells, performed in London under Hans Richter, the eminent conductor noticed that there was a part written for a concertina. ‘Concertina! Concertina!’ said Richter, ‘What is that?’ I explained to him that it was a peculiar instrument like a bellows, played by hand. ‘We cannot have that’ said Richter. ‘There is no instrument like that here.’ I found one, however, and Conductor Richter placed it away back where it could not possibly be heard. But at the concert I saw to it that the concertina player sat directly in front of the conductor.”
This according to “The concertina and The bells” by Eric Matusewitch (Concertina world 488 [December 2021] 17–24). Below, the work’s first movement.
These articles form the output of academic and artistic research in the areas of history, musicology, sociology, anthropology, historically informed performance practice, heritage, cultural sciences, and campanology. Although the main focus is on the Low Countries, contributions on carillon and bell culture in other countries will also be considered for publication.
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