Ocarina History

      The ocarina [ah-kah-ree-na] belongs to a family of wind instruments called vessel flutes. These globular, whistle-like instruments date back at least 6,000 years, existing in many cultures around the world in a varieties of different forms and tunings. They were most often made of clay but some were made of wood, gourds and bone. The ancient Chinese vessel flute "Xun" (pictured above) was of particular importance to Chinese song and dance traditions. The earthen egg-shaped instrument was played by blowing across an opening at the top and covering or uncovering finger holes for different pitches.

      Pre-Columbian inhabitants of Central and South America used clay vessel flutes as ceremonial, ritual and courting instruments. Believed to possess mystical properties, the flutes were often sculpted into natural forms such as shells, birds and turtles. Some of the more complex varieties consisted of two or more chambers, allowing multiple tones to be played simultaneously.

Guiseppe Donati
      The Aztecs introduced their ceramic whistles to Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century. The sweet-sounding instruments were so impressive that locally-made versions became popular novelties at markets and craft fairs all over Europe. In 1853, 17-year-old Italian brickmaker Guiseppe Donati made bird-whistles for fun, firing them alongside his bricks and giving them to friends. He gave his whistles the name ocarina, meaning �little goose�. Already an exceptional musician, Donati was fascinated by the musical potential of his ocarinas. Soon he developed his toys into real musical instruments by giving them an octave and a half of range and accurate Western tuning. In addition to setting up a workshop and selling his popular new ocarinas to the public, he organized an ensemble that traveled all over Europe performing ocarina renditions of classical and baroque music with as many as 11 different size ocarinas. The growing popularity of the ocarina spread to surrounding areas and soon ocarinas were being manufactured in France, Austria and Germany. The Italian tradition of making and playing the classical ocarina has continued through many talented craftsmen and musicians.

      Most ocarinas available in the United States in the early 20th century had been imported from Europe. However, in the late 1930s, the Waterbury and Gretsch Companies developed their own line of mass-produced ocarinas made from early forms of plastic such as Bakelite. These ocarinas, along with various tutorials and music books, became very popular in the USA and around the world. It was around this time that the peculiar pipe earned its American nickname, "the sweet potato", for its sweet sound � and because it resembled a sweet potato with a mouthpiece. The US government supplied troops with plastic ocarinas to boost morale during World War II.

      The quest for better ocarinas has continued throughout the 20th century. In 1928, Japanese musician Takashi Aketagawa reinvented the classical Italian ocarina by increasing the number of finger holes from 10 to 12 which expanded the range three semi-tones. Ocarina composer and performer Sojiro is largely credited as the catalyst for the modern ocarina movement in Japan which started in the mid-1980's and has since spread to Korea, Taiwan and other parts of the Orient. The instrument's simplicity and connection to nature has resonated deeply within the Asian psyche.

Link, playing the Ocarina of Time.
      The English fingering system, developed by John Taylor in the 1960's, uses only 4 finger holes to play an entire octave. This discovery made much smaller ocarinas possible.

      In recent years, demand for ocarinas has dramatically increased as a result of the popularity of Nintendo's 1998 hit video game, "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time", in which the forest child hero, Link, often plays a magical ocarina.

      Although technical advances and growing popularity have brought the ocarina into the 21st century, this unique instrument still possesses the original mystique and simple charm that has identified it since its ancient origins.

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