Underdog instruments

The zither is, if nothing else, a cross-cultural affair, manifesting itself as the Vietnamese đàn tranh, the Japanese koto, the German scheitholt, the Chinese guzheng, and so on. No other instrument that has that ethereal quality that every continent has seemed to make its own. The thirty-year career of Ruth Welcome and her zither-laden renditions of loved classics proves the point that the zither is as versatile as it is uncommon.

To some, the autoharp is an extension of the zither. To be very honest, I am using it as an excuse to talk about PJ Harvey (what’s new). The autoharp creates her album’s beautiful tone, elevating it from a simple war album to something much more spectacularly heart-breaking. The instru-ment sounds less angelic and more rustic than the traditional zither, sitting well in the rural English feel of Harvey’s album and giving it the bittersweet mood of Englishness that few instruments achieve.

The ardin is a ten-string harp originating in Mauritania. What makes it so special? It can only be played by women. The ardin requires a kind of precision and mastery that makes it hard to play well, but get it right and the results are glorious. Noura Mint Seymali is one example, a musician who’s taken the ardin and transformed it into a psychedelic experience, pitting the lush sounds of the instrument against phasers and punk-inflected singing.

If you are a Shakira fan (which, by the default of your being a human with ears and/or eyes, I will assume you are) then the panpipe will be an integral part of your musical knowledge. But its utility does not stop at Colombian pop – the panpipes’ sneaky insertion into mainstream music is a (wonderful) phenomenon that has played its way into much music of the last century, calming down our pop with flutey fragile inflections.


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March 2021
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