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KVR Developer Challenge 2021KVRDC21: Way Music BamBoomBa - Free Wooden Key Thumb Piano SoundFont

Way Music

With the KVR Developer Challenge 2021 at the download and voting stage it's time to focus on each of the 37 entries that are available now, for free, for everyone.

BamBoomBa by Way Music
SoundFont

BamBoomBa is a wooden key thumb piano SoundFont and sample library with a deep history. I have developed a project on African music in seventeenth-century Jamaica for four decades. I made the actual instrument 30 some-odd years ago for that project. Probably 1988 or 89.

I was an undergrad taking a course on Africans in the Americas in the early modern period. I was trying to understand a document recounting a musical gathering of enslaved Africans on a Jamaican plantation in 1688, just as Jamaica's sugar plantations were really kicking into gear. I was thinking about what sorts of instruments could be made with materials at hand (none were brought over by the enslaved people).

One of the instruments that I am pretty sure was played at the Jamaican gathering was a wooden-keyed sansa (thumb piano, MBira) like the one in the third attached image, the woodcut. It was perhaps not seen by the white visitors because it was sitting just within the mouth of a hollowed-out gourd resonator: The whole gourd would be cut in half and the large wide part resembling a round-bottomed kettle would be used, and the sansa would rest just inside it. I suppose if I was going for authenticity rather than learn-by-making I would have planted, nurtured, dried, and cut a big calabash. Impatient, I used a dresser drawer instead.

I did not think the enslaved Africans would be able to get the metals used in modern sansas, so I opted for the more traditional wooden-keyed version. I have never seen a wooden-keyed sansa in the present tense. All the ones I have seen in person or in soundware have been the metal-keyed kind. This one has a unique sound, less ringing and more percussive and yes, woody.

Part of my goal in making the instrument was to learn by doing. It is made of found parts except for the small wooden dowel which sits under the keys by the bridge; that cost less than a dollar. The bamboo sticks are flat like a ruler but narrower, sturdy enough to play. These bamboo sticks, which make the keys of the instrument, used to be found stuffing the paper into new shoes when I collected them in the late 80s. I was working for a short time in a shoe store to support myself, and when I sold a pair of shoes that had the sticks, I would check the sticks out for tone and keep any that sounded good. The top of the instrument is an old dresser drawer that a previous tenant in my rental row house had left in the basement. It has a beautiful thin solid sheet of some kind of wood that has a lovely sound when tapped, not too far off from an acoustic guitar top. The rest of the body consists of two triangular plywood sides of and one rectangular plywood base to make a megaphone-like opening in the far end. The opening is underneath in the picture. It would actually be played by tilting it toward yourself so that the sound opening points away from you, with the rectangle of plywood at the base. It projects nicely and can hold its own in an acoustic guitar jam.

Once made, the BamBoomBa served its purpose of teaching me about improvising with materials at hand. Also, playing it made it pretty clear that the notes of one of the pieces that the visitors to the 1688 Jamaican slave gathering would be much easier to play on the alternating-keyed sansa than on a stringed instrument or any other in which the notes go in order from low to high. This was because the musical notation was for a long fast run of close intervals. In fact, there were microtones involved, but you can read about that in the longer pieces I wrote, particularly the most recent one, the somewhat-but-not-completely tongue-in-cheek titled "EthnoDigital Sonics and the Historical Imagination." That piece recounts the important role of the BamBoomBa in my own little autobiographical (audiobiographical?) history of the rise of DIY digital audio on PCs in the 90s and 00s set within the academic fields of Black Studies and Sound Studies, as well as a few other fields.

The actual sansa can easily accommodate any tuning, equal temperament or microtonal, just by sliding the keys further in or out from the bridge. Samplers and synths are only now making it easier to use non-equal tunings, mostly because of the MIDI group that made the standard in the early 80s. They only consulted Western and Japanese music execs and engineers. Microtones in MIDI are still a bit of a kludge, basically being created through pitch "deviations" from the "standard" equal temperament MIDI "notes" via a table of preset pitch bends in a .tun files or whatever. Western equal temperament, a historical anomaly, is the standard from which everything else deviates in the MIDI model.

As far as playing, I attached a cut, bededeBompawhackawhacka where it replaces the pick sound in an electric guitar via using the soundfont controlled through a synth guitar, mixing the electric with the soundfont to create a one-off hybrid instrument. That cut is from my experimental improv duo RREPlay's new album RREPost. (RREPlay are Rich Rath and Eric Parker -- rr+ep, hence the names, in case you wondered). Check it out for some cool, avant-but-listenable (mostly) instrumental music. The other cut is from the 1688 transcription labeled "Koromanti." Check the first two links above if you are curious about that. It is not a reconstruction, but rather a learning device. The percussion from that cut can be found in the soundfont as well. I will look through my catalog and listen for some more interesting examples of it in use.

The BamBoomBa takes really well to distortion, time stretching, pitch-shifting, and most especially echo and reverb. You will have to supply that yourself though, since I was unable to figure out a way to incorporate those sounds into a .sf2 file.

I hope you enjoy my instrument, it is a labor of love.

~Rich.


Download, vote & donate at
www.kvraudio.com/kvr-developer-challenge/2021


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