The cello as a percussion instrument

Romanian Garon
Romanian Gardon player (photo by Jack Campin)

This is going to be a quick post as I have to go teach this afternoon and then rehearse with the IU Southeast Orchestra tonight.  But I had come across what’s called a “pogo cello” just a bit ago.  The wikipedia entry for the instrument states:

The pogo cello was created in the 1950s in Brooklyn, New York by a chemist, Mack Perry, the husband of a music educator, Sylvia Perry. Perry patterned it after a similar instrument called a bumbass (boombas, boomba, or boom bass) also known as a stump fiddle (or stumpf fiddle). Pogocellos were manufactured in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway, New York and in New Jersey. The pogocello was sold in the United States for decades as a musical instrument for children, but many adults also bought them for themselves.

Pogocellos have been seen in marching bands in Iowa and in the Mummers’ parade in Philadelphia, PA on New Year’s Day. Similar instruments may be found today in Australia, Czechoslovakia and in Sweden (a Devil’s fiddle or Devil’s stick) and in other countries, for example at Oktoberfests. They have been played in blues, soul, bluegrass and other kinds of musical groups. Television show host, Garry Moore, played one on his show in the 1950s. Since 1975 the Gloucester Hornpipe and Clog Society, an American traditional music group which plays Celtic, French Canadian, Appalachian, nautical, and other kinds of folk music, has featured a pogocello made by woodcarver Rita Dunipace, and pogocello player David “Doc” Rosen.

A great video describing and demonstrating the instrument:

The first thing that came to mind, though, when encountering this enigma of an instrument is the ütögardon or, more simply, gardon of the Hungarian Székelys and Csángós which is essentially a cello-like instrument hit with a stick and plucked with the left hand.  Here is a video of how it is used and what it sounds like:

From what I understand, in a lot of traditional Eastern European music, bass stringed instruments are almost invariably used percussively–violins get the melodies–and rarely played with a bow.  For example, the string bass is a part of a number of these folk ensembles and have evolved into a relatively complex slap bass style.  Here’s a video of one of my favorite Romanian Lăutari, Taraf de Haïdouks, playing a Turceasca (which they’ve also recorded with the Kronos Quartet, btw):

There are a few close-ups of the bassists hands, but at minute 3:28 you can hear a nice slap bass solo!

I’m obviously going to do a Spotlight on the gardon at some point, just need to find more info as I hadn’t really researched the instrument much.  I think some of the history and tradition of the instrument can be very interesting as this website indicates:

The gardon is an ancient stringed percussion instrument of the Székelys of Csík and Csángós of Gyimes. Gauged like a trough from one piece of beech, maple or willow wood, its shape resembles a cello. The three strings tuned to one tone are hammered with a stick, while a thinner string is plucked simultaneously so that it recoils on the finger board. It sounds like the double bottom kettle drum. Together with the violin the gardon is used to make dance music. The band has two members: the husband plays the violin, the wife hits the gardon.

If you browse many of the youtube videos, you’ll see that the gardon is invariably played by women, which lends some truth to the above which is an interesting gender dynamic.

The photo above is from Jack Campin’s website: http://www.campin.me.uk/Travel/Romania2008/

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