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Note to luthiers and musical instrument vendors of all sorts:

By playing in public pretty much constantly, I expose many people to instruments they would never otherwise hear. In doing so, I have inspired three people to buy a xaphoon, two people to buy a cumbus, two people to buy a hurdy gurdy, and one to buy a mijwiz, and that's only counting the ones who told me so personally afterwards. Are you looking for an effective way to advertise your instruments? Contact me.

Like I need more instruments, really. I have more instruments than I know what to do with, but the main ones I play are listed below. I love them all, but I won't be taking them all to the same gig until I get roadies.


Voice: People who think my hurdy gurdy is loud haven't heard me sing. This is the source of my title.

Mijwiz: A very old instrument (similar to those used by ancient Greeks and Egyptians) with single reeds. Proportional to its cost, weight, or size, it's the coolest instrument I own, with a unique, compelling, and loud sound. Mine is in the key of stick, but it's pretty close to Rast, an Arabic scale. If you want something unusual, considering getting a mijwiz before shelling out the money for a hurdy gurdy. For information on how to play the mijwiz, see my mijwiz page.

Tinwhistles: For when I get tired of people asking, "What is that?" One of the first mass-produced instruments, bringing music to the English and Irish masses in the 1800's. Even today, $5 tinwhistles available at toy stores are good enough for professional musicians to play.

Fifes: I got these when I was tired of sound guys having trouble micing my tinwhistles at contra dances. They're considerably louder. I don't like being dependent on sound guys.

Xaphoon: This single-reed instrument was invented by some dude in Hawaii, but it's very similar to a baroque chalumeaux. Like all great expressive instruments, it's difficult to play, because there are so many variables. When I grow another lobe in my brain, I'll get back to this.


Hurdy gurdy: The reason medieval Europe didn't need the electric guitar. Also see my Frequently Asked Questions page.

Cümbüs: Zeynel Abidin Cümbüs invented this instrument in Turkey in the early 20th century. His grandfather made swords, and his father made guns, but he refitted the family factory to mass-produce musical instruments. It's based on the oud, the ancient Middle Eastern ancestor of the European lute. Like the oud, it has 6 courses of strings and a fretless neck. Unlike the oud, it's cheap, loud, durable, portable, and stays in tune. Made of aluminum and plastic, the thing is practically dishwasher-safe. My cumbus was my main busking instrument before I got my hurdy gurdy, as it's great to sing with. Would you like to buy my old oud? It looks beautiful.

Mandola: I love my cumbus, but it just doesn't look right for a lot of traditional and all early music. So in 2004, I got a 100-year-old lute-backed mandola, which sounds almost as good as it looks, and it looks gorgeous. I much prefer the sound to a mandolin, as it's richer, mellower, and less plinky. It's great for singing with.

I tried to look up the origin of the mandola, and found myself going in circles. In renaissance Italy, a mandola was a small almond-shaped lute. (As mine is.) A small mandola was called a mandolin. Eventually, the mandolin became more popular, and the mandola died out. In the U.S. in the 19th century, someone got the idea to make an instrument that was to the mandolin as a viola is to a violin. Thus, the second avatar of the mandola was born. (Even mandocellos were made, to make whole mandolin-family orchestras.) My mandola must date from this era. So, when people ask where it's from, what should I say?


For some reason, many people think that percussion instruments are easy to play. It's often easy to get some sort of sound out of them, but then again, it's easy to get some sort of sound out of a violin. That doesn't mean I can play violin. I teach Middle Eastern and Balkan percussion, so contact me for lessons. For goodness sake, at least contact someone for lessons, or get a video.

I've been asked to write up some instructions for how to play percussion in a contra dance band. The Contra Percussion Page is still a work in progress, but there's some stuff there that I hope you will find useful.

Doumbek: Between the mind-boggling intricacy of the tabla of India, and the butt-kicking power of the djembe of West Africa, is the doumbek of the Middle East and Balkans. It has different names in every country, including darbuka, derbeke, derbeleke, and confusingly, tabla .

Riq:This Egyptian tambourine is at least as mind-boggling, and almost as butt-kicking as a doumbek (it doesn't have the bass to truly kick butt), and it's a lot more portable. It's also the most difficult percussion instrument I play, since it can produce such a wide variety of sounds. I'm serious. Get a lesson before you try to play this.

Frame Drum: OK, this can be easy to play, if you're into trances. Instructions: 1. Hit it somewhere. 2. Enjoy the thunderous echoing rumble. 3. Repeat.

This can also be played as a real instrument, though, producing a lot of different sounds.

Tupan: The butt-kickingest drum ever, from the Balkans and Middle East. It doesn't produce a lot of different sounds, but is often used to play bizarre odd-meter syncopated rhythms. It's fun to kick butt in 18/16. They don't even know what hit them.

Zills: Finger cymbals, the most portable percussion instrument, often played while dancing.

Castanets: The other most portable percussion instrument, but a bit harder to play. These wooden or fiberglass clackers are now associated with the flamenco dancers of Spain, but were also popular in many other cultures, including ancient Rome.

Questions, comments, gig offers? My email address is .

Updated August 28, 2012 © Melissa Kacalanos