‘When it hits a low C, it takes you to another dimension’: the musicians in love with obscure instruments | Music

In the 2022 film Alice, the titular heroine – a slave living on a 19th-century-style plantation in Georgia – discovers that she is really living in the 1970s. The soundtrack reflects the latter period, an age of afros and Blaxploitation, through songs by Stevie Wonder, Willie Hutch and Chaka Khan, but it is peppered with interludes that feature an instrument that was first heard in the days of plantations: the contrabass clarinet.

The instrument is played by James Carter, a 54-year-old musician from Detroit who has been a significant figure in jazz since the early 90s. “I just loved the ‘muddy earth’ sound it has,” he says. “All that air flowing through it made you feel like you’re the lord of the underground. The contrabass clarinet has such expressive range; it reminds me of bullfrogs in the night, yet it is also a kind of wise old sage, it’s so commanding.”

You can hear what he’s talking about on his 2003 album, Gardenias for Lady Day, a tribute to the vocal great Billie Holiday. On Strange Fruit, Holiday’s anti-lynching anthem, Carter draws from the contrabass clarinet a series of primeval, haunting wails that entirely suit the subject matter. The low-end horn is like an engulfing darkness.

The contrabass clarinet.
Odd wind … The contrabass clarinet. Photograph: Dorling Kindersley/Alamy

Producing such evocative sounds takes no small amount of graft, as Carter and other musicians who play rare instruments can attest. For those who play the sorts of instruments that are rarely seen in orchestras and jazz bands, there are practical hurdles to overcome, such as honing posture and technique to successfully negotiate the shape, size and structure of these uncommon inventions. Not to mention the cost and complexity of servicing and maintaining such devices. It is fascinating to hear what artists in different genres have to say about the advantages and disadvantages of playing what their peers do not.

First used in 19th-century classical orchestras and military bands, the contrabass clarinet is one of the more obscure members of the woodwind family. It has long held an appeal for jazz musicians intent on creating a wide tonal spectrum in their work. One of Carter’s major sources of inspiration, Anthony Braxton, an innovative Chicago-born composer-improviser, raised the profile of the instrument when he used it at prestigious international festivals in Montreux and Berlin back in the mid 70s.

“He was way ahead of his time,” says Carter, whose arsenal of reed instruments also includes F-mezzo, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones. “When he hits a low C, it takes you to another dimension. I wanted to experience the same thing when I played it myself.”

With its broad, upright frame, like a giant paperclip, the contrabass clarinet requires its players to have physical strength as well as technique. “It can be cumbersome, depending on how you hold it against your body,” says Carter. “You have to make your lungs work a little bit harder with it, but that’s also the beauty. You feel everything you put into it.”

As much as Carter, who has worked with jazz and rock stars such as Herbie Hancock and Ginger Baker, hails the wonders of the contrabass clarinet, he is keen to acknowledge the role that specialist woodwind makers such as Benedikt Eppelsheim have played in its evolution. The renowned German instrument maker, who died earlier this year, fitted it with trill keys – small levers that facilitate the shaking and warbling of notes – and additional octaves that “let the instrument sing more”.

That question of design and modification runs through the whole history of instruments, both rare and familiar. Yet most exciting are those custom-made devices that were never put into mass production. Such is the case of a one-off low-register beast played by Paul Rogers that straddles eras, genres and cultures. A hybrid of the baroque-period viola da gamba, double bass and Indian sitar, this unnamed instrument has seven rather than four playing strings, as well as 14 “sympathetic strings” – non‑playing strings tucked under the playing strings to produce greater resonance.

“It’s a weird combination of many things,” says Rogers. “I told a French luthier, Antoine Leducq, what I wanted and he took about a year and a half to make it. The shape of the instrument is like a small canoe. It’s like a medieval thing, really. But I listen to all sorts of music – medieval classical, Asian and African music – and with this instrument I can really find some of those sounds.”

Based in France for more than four decades, the 67-year-old, Chester-born Rogers is a renowned figure on the British and European avant garde scene, known for his inventive, high-octane performances, in which he explores novel textures on unamplified bass. “I have so many more harmonics than on a standard bass,” he says. “When I got the instrument, I was like a teenager again with my first bass. It is difficult to play because of the extra strings, but I can play high notes with a strength I didn’t have before.”

Yahael Camara Onono.
‘All of the buzzing of [the balafon] is part of its richness’: Yahael Camara Onono. Photograph: Bunny Bread/@icreatenotdestroy

That advantage doesn’t come without issues, though. Maintenance is a challenge. “I had to get another guy to make an enormous bridge for it because my other one was a regular size and it bent under the tension of seven strings,” says Rogers. “The other problem is the strings themselves. I have to get the very high ones specially made. You can’t just go down to the local bass shop with this thing.”

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Given his love of non-western as well as western music, Rogers would most probably lend an ear to stories told by Yahael Camara Onono about the balafon. It is one of many traditional west African instruments featured in Balimaya Project, the ensemble he leads that has built a sizeable audience in Britain in the past few years through its blend of Mandé rhythms, jazz, funk and spoken word. Similar in appearance to a xylophone, the balafon has keys made of strips of wood that resonate through small calabashes (gourds) tied underneath. The instrument must be handled with care. “You have to be in the right atmospheric conditions because it’s quite fragile,” says 31-year-old Onono, a percussionist and historian of west African instruments. “Heat and humidity affect every part of the instrument, so travelling from one continent to another is tricky. Keeping the balafon in key requires real attention.”

Like many European instruments, the balafon, dating from the 14th century, is part of a family with members of differing size and design due to its presence in several countries, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Senegal, where the London-born Onono claims heritage. Finding the model that is appropriate for the specific tonality of a song is as important as being mindful of temperature changes, but the balafon-playing community, which counts virtuosi such as Lassana Diabaté, has not been short of imagination when it comes to adapting to specific harmonic contexts.

“There are chromatic balafons that correspond to the white notes of a piano, but if you need the black ones on the piano, then you have to use a second balafon,” says Onono. “So a lot of today’s innovative players are now putting the black keys above the chromatic keys, then playing them together as if it’s a piano.”

Balimaya Project, who have just released their second album, When the Dust Settles, make a strong case for the relevance of ancestral instruments to the internet age. The balafon vividly hisses, rumbles and gurgles, as there is a trail of extraneous noise running alongside the notes not dissimilar to the distortion of an electric guitar.

“What makes the balafon special is the unique timbre, all of the buzzing is part of its richness,” says Onono. “And there is the rhythmic complexity, too.”

More importantly, the instrument has extra musical meaning. If James Carter’s contrabass clarinet and Paul Rogers’s viola da gamba-bass amalgam are bridges between tradition and modernity, then the balafon is nothing less than a vessel of cultural identity. Along with the kora, xalam and n’goni, it was originally played by griots or royal African storytellers tasked with chronicling daily life. “The balafon is really about people,” says Onono. “It is a medium for us to hold on to our history.”

When the Dust Settles by Balimaya Project is out now on New Soil/Jazz Re:Freshed. Balimaya Project play the Barbican, London on 17 October.