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Latin American Instruments
by Gregg Miner, as part of

I Wonder As I Wander
(Appalachian carol, adapted by J.J. Niles)



Rainstick - Brazil



Charangos -

Guitarron -

Baja Sexto -

Vihuela -

Vera Cruz Harp - Mexico



Disclaimer to Internet readers: 
The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

Our song opens with a Brazilian rainstick, a hollow tube filled with pebbles that can be shaken horizontally as a rhythm instrument or turned over vertically back and forth causing the cascading pebbles to emulate the sound of rainfall. A version made out of a hollow cactus can now be found at virtually every "New Age" or "nature" store, where they're sold for meditative use or, conversely, for kids to drive their parents crazy.

The ocarina is a primitive clay "vessel flute" shaped sort of like an organic ray gun or, as it's sometimes called, "sweet potato."  Found in many different cultures throughout the world, it is easy to play, with a pure, expressive tone.

One of the most characteristic sounds of Andean folk music is that of the sikus, or Bolivian panpipes. Made from cane, with tubes of various lengths tied together in one or two rows to form a scale, they are played just like an empty bottle, blowing across the mouth of the tube. A common technique is for two players to play alternate notes of the melody to allow for quicker passages and, more importantly, great stereo (I utilized this effect for the opening vamp).

The charango is often referred to as "the mandolin of the Argentine cowboy," though I would more accurately call it the "ukulele of the pampas." It's a tiny little thing traditionally made from the body of an armadillo - presumably the most common indigenous material the cowboy had at hand. The roughly guitar-shaped body of the instrument is actually the hollowed out "shell" of the unfortunate mammal. If that makes you a little squeamish, you can buy a modern charango, which is carved out of wood (both types are featured here). They're strung in nylon (I don't even want to know what they were originally strung with), with five double courses tuned g'g',c"c",e"e',a'a',e"e", and played with the fingers in flamenco-like rasqueado style.

The guitarron is that enormous, deep-bodied Mexican bass guitar invariably played by the shortest member of a Mariachi band. I always wondered why they had six strings; I thought these guys only played about three notes, which isn't true at all - these men work! 1) there are no frets, 2) the strings are heavy and the "action" high (the distance one must press the strings down), 3) they require a strong, pronounced plucking action, and 4) everything is played in octaves, two strings at once. The latter is actually facilitated by the initially confusing tuning, AA,D,G,c,e,A. I played octaves in just the second verse of this song, and were my hands and arms pooped!

The second verse then brings in more instruments:

In the left channel, we now hear the baja sexto, an entirely different type of Mexican bass guitar, this time with six pairs of strings. It superficially resembles our American twelve-string guitar (on Volume I of the CD), and is, in fact, tuned almost exactly the same, except that it's an octave lower. With big, fat steel strings (brass or nickel wound), this generates some serious cumulative string tension - especially for such a lightly built guitar - and I kept waiting for it to suddenly collapse like a book snapping shut, with me in the middle. The baja sexto migrated into Texas around 1920 and is still used in "Tex-Mex" music, fulfilling the role of the piano.. The dynamic low notes actually do sound pianistic - so I had it counterpoint the guitarron, inspired by the piano/string bass interplay of the incredible tango bands I saw in Argentina.

On the right channel is the vihuela, a small, deep-bodied Mexican rhythm guitar built along the same lines as the guitarron. Its five nylon strings are tuned like the first five of a guitar, but with the fourth and fifth tuned up an octave, ukulele-style.

The Vera Cruz harp is representative of the various types of Mexican and South American harps which are all fairly similar in appearance and playing technique. They're strung with ultra-low-tension nylon strings and, unlike most other nylon/gut-strung harps, are played with the fingernails. A distinctive technique is a rapid tremolo with the nails brushing back and forth on the strings, creating a mandolin-like sound (I used fingerpicks to simulate fingernails, but couldn't pull off the tremolo). Also, unlike other harps, these can be played standing up - even (as captured in an old photograph) in a marching band!

Copyright 2000
Miner Music