On the mantle over a friend’s fireplace is a strange little musical instrument about the size and shape of a large round potato. The instrument has finger holes and a protruding mouthpiece which, when blown into, produces low, melancholy notes.
The little instrument can only sound a few notes compared to the flute or piccolo and it appears to be limited and primitive. Yet, using breath control and a variety of fingering, my friend can play a wide range of jigs and reels on it. When the friend first showed me the instrument some 40 years ago, he called it a “Sweet Potato.” I remember remarking at the time that it looked and sounded old. Over the years I’ve seen only one other Sweet Potato, which is its colloquial name. It was decades before I learned that the instrument is actually called an ocarina and that it is in-~ deed as primitive and as ancient as it looks.
In 1960, workers building a subway system in Mexico City dug up Aztec artifacts that were over 2,000 years old. Among the artifacts were several musical instruments, including an ocarina. Here was proof that my friend’s Sweet Potato was at least 20 centuries old and was played in the stone temples of the Aztecs during human sacrifices.
Other musical instruments perhaps better known and more common than the ocarina are just as ancient. Take, for example, a commonplace instrument with which everyone is familiar, the harmonica or mouth organ. People who look upon the harmonica as a modern blues instrument are surprised when told it was invented by the ancient Chinese.
The harmonica is said to be even older than the bagpipes, which can trace its ancestry back at least 2,000 years. Bagpipes almost identical to contemporary instruments were played in ancient Greece and carried with the Roman Legions. Most European countries have a version of the bagpipes which can be traced back to the time when civilisation was just starting. Few improvements have been made on them in that time.
Instruments such as the saxophone (patented in 1846 by Adolphe Sax) and even the piano are mere babies as musical instruments compared to the ocarina, harmonica and the bagpipes. But some musical instruments may be even more ancient. The panpipes are believed to be forerunner of the bagpipes. Variations of the panpipes were found in ancient Greece and China. The Japanese have several simple, four-holed flutes, believed to have been in use for at least 2,000 years, that are ancestors of the modern flute family. The oldest musical instruments may be the horn, the ancestor of modern day brasses such as the trumpet, trombone and tuba. Horns are said to have originated from hollow animal horns and shells such as the conch.
True or not, horns have been used by man since the bronze age. Some 3,000 years ago the natives of Scandinavia used a bronze trumpet called the lur. Earlier horns, such as the didgeridoo played by the Aborigines of Australia, were often made of wood.
Well before primitive man was blowing horns and whistles, he was beating out rhythms with sticks and bones. Early percussion instruments, the ancestor of drums, cymbals and xylophones were the first musical instruments.