Horagai – A Conch Shell Trumpet From Samurai Times

A while ago we did a post about conch shell trumpets that date back to ancient Aztec times.  While researching Asian-Pacific Instruments, we found similar shell trumpets in Tibet, Korea, the Pacific Islands and Japan.  Here’s more about the Japanese version of this unique instrument.

Although shell trumpets can be found in various locations around the world, the Japanese versions – Horagai (法螺貝) or jinkai (陣貝) are a bit unusual.  They consist, not only of the large conch shell but also of a wooden or bronze mouthpiece that allows the instrument to make a series of sounds, as opposed to only one loud blast or note.  Most closely connected with Buddhist monks such as the Yamabushi Warrior monks in Japan, each group or school would learn to play the instrument in different ways and to produce different melodies.

Historical records show that horagai was used in various Buddhist rituals that date back at least a thousand years or so.  These shell trumpets can also be seen in present day Japan in religious ceremonies such as the omizutori (water drawing), which is part of the of the Shuni-e rites at the Tōdai-ji in Nara.  When used by the Yamabushi (Ascetic warrior monks of the Shugendo sect) the instrument would both accompany the chanting of sutras or prayers as well as to signal their presence or movements throughout the mountain region where they lived.  Because the temperatures in these high mountains could easily drop below zero, it is said that the wooden or bronze mouthpiece was added so that the trumpeter’s lips would not freeze to the shell in the extreme cold.

When used in Samurai times, the jinkai, or “war shell”, would play different combinations of notes to signal troops to attack, withdraw or change battle plans.  It was sometimes used to confuse the enemy who might misread the number of troops attacking or what the various battle signals might be.  As you might guess, an experienced trumpeter; called a kai yaku (貝役), woudl have to be an adept musician and would be valued greatly by the Japanese fuedal lords or Samurai for their talents.

To learn more about different shell trumpet traditions or to hear a beginner horagai player learning the instrument, check out the links and resources below.

Links and Resources

Instruments From Ancient Mexico – The Conch Shell Trumpet

Wikipedia’s Horagai Page

Learning to play the Yamabushi Conch-Shell Trumpet (Horagai)

What’s the National Instrument of Bhutan? Find It Here!

ukulele color imageThe internet has some really handy compilation sites.  We’ve recently discovered a Wikipedia page that shares the national instruments from a variety of diverse countries of the world.

What’s a national instrument?  It can be an instrument discovered or played in a country, like the South African vuvuzela horn.  It can also be a musical instrument that holds cultural and symbolic importance for a state, a nation, culture or a particular race or ethnicity of people.  Included in this list are distinctive drums, percussion instruments, stringed instruments and more, each one representing the unique character of the country and culture it’s identified with.

Think of the balalaika of Russia  Or the ukulele of Hawaii.   And if you take a moment to check out this list, you’ll notice that each instrument has a clickable link to a more detailed page with additional description, pictures and musical information.  In short, this is an amazing place to begin any study or exploration of world music and world music instruments.

charango full color imageCan a country have more then one “national instrument”?  Yes, you’ll notice that several countries have multiple instruments listed as their national instruments.  For instance, Peru has both the Afro-Peruvian cajón (box drum) and the Andean charango, a stringed instrument made from the shell of an armadillo.

So what is the national instrument of Bhutan?  It’s a long-necked, seven-stringed lute called the drayen.  To find out more, you’ll just have to check out the link, here:


Links and Resources

Vuvuzela – South Africa
MYO Vuvuzela Stadium Horn

Balalaika-Ill-ColoredBalalaika – Russia
Balaika Poster and Coloring Page

Wooden Spoons – Russia

Cajón  – Peru
Hear, Color or Craft One At:

Ukulele – Hawaii
Poster and Coloring Page

Charango – Peru
Poster and Coloring Page

Sistrum posterSistrum – Egypt
Color or Craft One At:

Didgeridoo – Australia
Hear, Color or Craft One At:

Bell Stones, Soapstones and Fish Pipes – Early Instruments of Indigenous California Cultures

soapstone flutes and whistlesAlthough there’s no formal written history of early indigenous cultures in the region of Southern California, a variety of resources give us a glimpse into the music and ceremonial life of these various tribes. While visiting the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, I was allowed to photograph and share a few of the beautiful music-related artifacts from their vast collection that reflect the early life of Native American tribes in this region.

Ringing Rocks or Bell Stones

Ringing Rock - side viewSimilar to Chumash culture, which originated north of the museum’s Santa Ana location, the pre-1600 AD tribes of this area also discovered, used and revered “ringing rocks” or bell stones. Pictured here (left) is a huge bell stone identified with Tongva/Agaemen(Gabrieliño/Juaneño) cultures with several man-made areas which were probably used for striking particular notes or for grinding medicinal plants. Most often, these large boulders were positioned on top of other rocks to give them more resonance and were “played” by tapping with smaller stones in different areas. Each area that is struck produces a slightly different tone.

soapstone whistlesSoapstone Instruments And A Fish “Pipe”

Also attributed to the early “Channel Island” peoples were an abundance of soapstone whistles and flutes of various shapes and sizes. Found throughout this area, soapstone (also known as steatite or soaprock) is a softer rock related to shist that has been used as a medium for carving in many cultures for thousands of years.

Displayed among the musical instruments is also this large and beautiful soapstone pipe (below) that was excavated from a location in Malibu. Shaped like a fish, fish pipeit could have been used as a sacred pipe or as a musical instrument. It’s design and decoration share many similarities with the more northern Chumash people’s ceremonial items.

Gifted artisans and basket-weavers, it may be hard to know exactly what the music and dance from this time and place were. However, these important and beautiful items can help us piece together many valuable details of these meaningful and important cultures. To learn more about Chumash music or to see how stones and rocks are used as musical instruments, check out the related posts below.

Resources And Related Links

bowers basketsBowers Museum, 2002 Main Street, Santa Ana, CA 92706 (714) 567-3600

Cocoon Rattles, Bear’s Claws and Bullroarers– Instruments From Chumash Culture


Playing River Rocks As An Instrument – Hawaiian `ili`ile


Cocoon Rattles, Bear’s Claws and Bullroarers – Instruments From Chumash Culture

Ojai museumWhile visiting the foothills of Southern California, I came across a small museum with a presentation of musical instruments from the area’s indigenous Chumash culture. Several of the traditional instruments were very familiar and can be seen in most tribes across the country. Other, however, were were truly unique and beautiful.  Here are the seven musical instruments presented on display at the Ojai Valley Museum.

For more information, check out the book on Chumash culture below or visit the museum’s online site, here: http://www.ojaivalleymuseum.org/

cocoon rattleCocoon Rattle

This truly unusual rattle used for ceremonial purposes is made from the cocoon of the Ceanothus Silk Moth (Hyalophora euryalus) and each cocoon is filled with pebbles. The cocoons are then attached to short lengths of reed which are bound together with fiber.

Bear Claw Rattle

Chumash turtle and clamshell rattleThe bear claw rattle (seen at the bottom middle section of this picture) was used as part of mourning ceremonies by the Chumash. In this rattle, each claw is strung on a piece of thread or fiber and the fibers are bunched together to make the instrument. Museum notes say that bears teeth can be used in this rattle as well.

Clamshell Rattle

A sturdy clamshell is filled with small noise-makers; such as small pebbles, then mounted on a stick for this decorative rattle (lower right of display).

Shell Rattle

clam shell belt rattleIn this traditional rattle holes are drilled in each shell and they are woven together with fiber.

Double Turtle Shell Rattle

double turtle rattleTurtle shells are used across the USA as part of Native American ceremonial rattles.  Frequently mounted on a stick, turtle shells are also used when tied in bundles and attached to the legs of dancers as part of the Cherokee stomp dance. The Chumash turtle shell rattle here uses two shells mounted on a stick along with beautiful ornamentation.
Frame Drum

Chumash frame drumAlmost every Native American tribe uses some form of the frame drum as part of their music and ceremony. The 2-sided, animal skin frame drum on display here measured about 14 – 16” in diameter and was accompanied by a traditional beater.


Chumash bullroarer +A bullroarer is a small piece of wood attached to a piece of string and swung around a large circle. The wooden piece is carved in such way that it creates a buzzing, droning or whirring noise when spun. You can see the Chumash bullroarer in the left half of this picture among other artifacts. It is carved on the edges  and decorated with paint and three “X”s.

To learn more about bullroarers in general, check out the post below which also includes a DIY kids bull roarer activity.

Make Your Own Bullroarer – A Kid’s Activity

California’s Chumash Indians
Published by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Education Center
Available on Amazon, here: http://amzn.com/0945092008

Make Your Own Mexican-Style Gourd Water Drums

Playing water gourd drumAlthough it’s a truly unique and amazing–sounding instrument, there’s very little information available about the history of gourd water drums. It’s clear that they are used in certain areas in Africa and that they show up in Mayan archives as “bubulek” water drums. In present day Mexico they are called jicara de agua and their history can also be traced to the Yaqui and Yoeme Indigenous people who called these floating gourd water drums, baa wehai.

What, exactly is a gourd water drum? Generally made from 3 sturdy pieces of dried Water gourd drum - parts:gourdsgourds, a small ring holds the larger “gourd bowl”, up-side-down in place. That larger gourd is filled with water. The smaller gourd is placed right-side-up, gently on the water’s surface where it is hit with a stick or tapped with fingers, palms or knuckles to create the unique, deep and resonant sound associated with this instrument.

While checking out LA born drummer and percussionist, Christopher Garcia, we found some really great information on the Yaqui and Yoeme roots of floating gourd water drums. Although several musicologists identify this drum as part of the Yaqui Deer Dance (Mazotiwua), Garcia explains how a special beater is used called a baa jiponia, made from a stick wrapped in a corn husk. He also shares some great pictures and basic information on a related instrument, called hirukiam which consist of a gourd facing down and a rasp laid across it, then scraped. The result is a “natural speaker” and another really unique sound creation. Links to Christopher Garcia’s music and website can be found below.

Sounds Like?

Watch this video from Germany and you’ll be able to both see and hear several techniques for playing the gourd water drum:


Michael Heralda of Aztec Stories Shows You How To Make A Gourd Water Drum

Also a wealth of information on ancient Mexican culture and musical traditions, Michael Heralda has two informative step-by-step videos that show you how to create your own gourd water drums. You’ll notice that his drums not only sound good, but are beautifully decorated.  For more information on his music, instruments, stories and other resources, visit the link below.

Here are his two gourd water drum-making videos from Youtube:

Michael Heralda’s Making A Gourd Water Drum – Part One

Michael Heralda’s Making A Gourd Water Drum – Part Two


Links and Resources

plastic water drum playingA Make-Your-Own Gourd Water Drum Craft for Kids


Christopher Garcia’s BAA WEHAI webpage


Christopher Garcia’s Indigenous Instruments webpage


Michael Heralda’s Aztec Stories Website





Instruments From Ancient Mexico – The Conch Shell Trumpet

conch shell trumpetA conch shell is a beautiful thing.

But who would guess that cultures all around the world would not only admire it’s beauty but also figure out that – with a few minor modifications – it becomes a completely functional, natural trumpet!  Among others, there are conch trumpets heard in music from the South Pacific, Tibet, Korea and pre-Incan cultures.  Archeological finds and older documents also place it in Aztec culture and ceremonies as well.  Here’s a bit more about the Aztec conch shell trumpet.

aztec conch trumpetPictured here is a musician called a “quiquizoani” playing the conch shell.  The name is in the Nahuatl Indigenous language of Mexico and this specific image can be found on page 23 of the Aztec Codex “Magliabecchi”, currently preserved and archived at the University of Utah in the United States.

One of the best sites for information on Aztec instruments, including great pictures from archeological sites and historical references is Mexicolore.com (see resources below).  Their research shows that there were 7 different types of conch shells and that the largest was called the ‘quiquiztli’.  As you might imagine, the shell trumpet was highly symbolic and associated with the breath of life as well as the rhythms of the sea.  Similarly, it was associated with the call to prayer, marking time during the day and during the night, the moon, fertility and Ehécatl – the Aztec God of the Wind.

Research also shows that conch shell trumpets were used by the Aztec military in a manner similar to modern day bugles.

Conch Shells in The USA

Closer to home, conch shells are part of a unique contest in the Florida Keys.  Although the tradition of blowing the conch trumpet dates back over 200 years, it was originally used mainly for maritime signaling. Recently, however, the contest is a lot more colorful with contestants that vary in age from 3 – 83 and even perform with unique outfits, hula hoops and other novelty approaches.

Want to find out more about this modern conch contest?  Check out the link below for some amazing variations on this ancient musical theme

What Does A Conch Trumpet Sound Like?

Check out this short video where a young buy demonstrates how to cut the conch shell and how to practice getting the trumpet sound.



MexicoLore’s Conch Shell Page

Florida Keys Newsroom – Info On The Annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest

Playing River Rocks As An Instrument – Hawaiian `ili`ile

There’s a special kind of hula, called hula ‘ili’ili, that’s done with the dancer tapping smooth river stones together as part of the rhythm and the dance.

Hula is a rich and beautiful tradition from Hawaii that actually originated with the Polynesian people who first settled in this region.  Hula can be done sitting or standing and can be accompanied by chants or song.  And it incorporates many unique and wonderfully simple instruments – such as pu’ili (bamboo sticks cut to sound as rattles) or ‘ili’ili, smooth stones held in the hand in a manner similar to castanets.  You can read more about pu’ili in the posts below.  Here’s more about the river rocks.

‘Ili’ili are two smooth stones, approximately the same size, that are held in a dancer’s hand.  The hand movements tap the stones together for the percussion sound and that becomes part of the overall arm movements incorporated into the dance.  If that sounds too complicted, here’s a short video by Kuma (Kuma is a respectful title meaning teacher or source of knowledge) Rachel that shows how to master the basics of playing ‘ili’ili.

What kind of stones are used as ‘iliili?  Most seem to be the dense smooth stones that come from volcanic rock and have been worn perfectly smooth by water.  They are often dark in color and are the same type of stones (basalt) used in hot stone massage therapy. A set of 4 rocks is required to play ‘ili’ile.

Can you try this at home if you don’t live in the Hawaiian islands?  Absolutely.  Choose four smooth rocks and practice the techniques above to create your own version of this perfectly natural percussion instrument!

Resources And Related Posts

Make Your Own Pu’ili Rhythm Sticks

The Ukulele – Four Strings and Jumping Fleas


Ka `Imi Na`auao O Hawai`i Nei – Website Exploring Traditional Hawaiian Culture


Kuma Rachel’s Hula Information And Tutorials

Hawaiian English Concordance of Hula-Related Terms


The Ukulele – 4 Strings and Jumping Fleas!

The sound of the tiny but mighty ukulele plays a big role in the folk music and dance of Hawaii.  But, did you know that it was originally modeled after a Portuguese instrument called the machete, brought to the islands in the 1800’s?  From there is evolved into the ukelele we recognize now, with a guitar-shaped body and 4 nylon or gut strings.

An Unusual Name

How did the ukulele (or oo-koo-le-le) get it’s name?  Some people translate the name from the Hawaiian to mean “jumping flea” and say that it describes the “fidgety” movements of the musician’s hands when the instrument is being played.   Others translate it a bit differently.  One of the last Hawaiian queens, Queen Lili’uoklani, said the name stood for “the gift that came here” by combining the Hawaiian words: uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).

A Family of Instruments

Like many stringed instruments, there are several different types of ukuleles that vary in size and tone.  Most commonly, you can find these four different types: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The instrument pictured here is a smaller-sized soprano ukulele.

Traditional Ukulele Songs

Here’s a short video that shows two ukulele players talking about how they began playing their instruments and performing a duet of a traditional Hawaiian song called “Noho Paipai” as part of a Hawaiian music festival.

Color A Ukulele

You can find a ukulele coloring page on DARIA’s world music for kids site at:


You can also find a full color uke poster plus coloring page at her TeachersPayTeachers store (.99) here:


What Can An Erhu Do?

Erhu - Color ImageAlthough you might not recognize the name “erhu”(二胡; pinyin: èrhú, [êɻxǔ]), you would immediately know it’s distinctive sound.  One of a family of stringed, bowed instruments from China, the erhu is sometimes called a Chinese fiddle, a 2 stringed violin, a southern or spike fiddle and it’s origins date back at least a thousand years ago to when it was brought to China by the Xi people of Central Asia.

From these humble beginning, the versatile and evocative sound of the erhu has won it a major place in Chinese orchestras, as well as a starring role in modern musical ensembles  including, jazz, pop and even rock groups.

How Is The Erhu Made?

The erhu is an unusual instrument in many ways.  It consists of a small sounding box made of a hard wood, such as sandlewood, that was traditionally covered with snake or python skin.  Some musicians and orchestras; such as the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, have recently sought out more ecologically-friendly versions and developed a series of erhu and related instruments that are made from a polyester membrane instead of snakeskin.

The bow used for an erhu was originally made of a bamboo stick strung with horsehair.

Is It A Violin?

Although the sound of the erhu is similar to the Western violin in many ways, there are several striking differences.  First, the erhu has two strings and the violin has four.  Next, the erhu is played on the lap of the musician while the violin rests between the shoulder and chin of its player.  Also, on the erhu the strings are pressed but do not touch the fingerboard and the bow does not leave the strings.  On the violin, fingers touch the fretboard to create different notes and the bow will move on and off the strings while it is being played.

If you take a look at the video below from Danwei TV, you’ll be able to see many of the unique qualities of this beautiful traditional instrument from China.

If you’d like to print out a version of the erhu coloring page seen above, you can visit the links below.

Playing The Erhu

One musician comments on playing the instrument and performs a popular folk song called “Running River” on the erhu.


B+W coloring page of the erhu from DARIA’s world music for children site:


Free Coloring Pages of World Music Instruments from DARIA:


Color poster of erhu plus b+w coloring page from TeachersPayTeachers:http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/The-Erhu-Chinese-Violin-Instruments-From-Around-The-World-1037355

Bead Your Own African Shekere

traditional-shekeres-from-around-the-world- A shekere (or sekere) is a beautiful and unique instrument originating in West Africa that appears in various shapes, sizes and forms throughout the continent of Africa.  Made from a simple dried gourd with a beaded “skirt”, shekeres are a great addition to any environment where children are learning about music or world cultures.

mini shekere for storeIf you’re finding it hard to locate or purchase a shekere for your classroom, home or homeschool, you might consider making your own.  Other then the dried gourd, the additional materials are easy to find and the beading process is “easy to moderate” for beginning crafters.  In fact, since the stringing and beading is the part of the process that generates the most questions and confusion, we’ve partnered with Carrie P. from a wonderful blog called Crafty Moms Share to develop a step-by-step tutorial for making your own dried gourd shekere.  (Complete gourd tutorial and other related shekere posts can be found at the links below).

beads for shekere kitsBeads, Seeds, Nuts or Seashells

Along with beads, almost any small, roundish, rattling object can be used as the noise-makers on a shekere.  If you take a close look at the shekeres pictured above, you’ll notice beads as well as seeds woven into the netting.  In Africa, some shekeres also use seashells or hard seeds or nuts with holes drilled though them as part of their unique design.

Add Some String

The skirt of a shekere is created from a type of string or twine that is durable and will not break or stretch.  Since cotton twine will stretch, nylon or hemp is a better choice for creating a working shekere.  Because the top circle or collar of the netting holds all the other strings in place, some craftspeople pick a thicker string for this or braid the twine for a more durable start to the project.

shekere skirt no beadsAnd Some Knots!

With your collar in place around the gourds neck, you are ready to add the strings.

Cut a number of strings (enough to fit around the gourd) approximately 30 inches long.  Fold each string in half and make a slip knot with it around the collar.  To make a slip knot, put the folded string under the collar with the fold on top and then bring the ends through the loop of the fold and collar and tighten.

Once you have all the strings you desire in place you will tie a loop knot to secure each location. A loop knot is where you make a “6” with your strings and bring the end through the loop of it. This is the type of knot we will be using for the rest of the project.

starting to beadAdd The Beads

Here are Carrie’s great suggestions for getting the hang of adding beads to the skirt:

Adding the beads is where you creativity really comes into play.

You can do many different things with the beads. Some put a bead on each string, others put two strings through a bead. Some put a single bead between knots and others go up to three beads before knotting. The important thing is to work with a string from two different knots.

Once you have your bead(s) in place, tie a loose loop knot. I re-started many of mine because I did not like how the first round looked and found they lay better with looser knots.  Do an entire round before starting the next.

Once you have one round complete, start the next.  Stay consistent with however you’ve started with beads and knots, but again you want to use strings from different knots. This will bring the beads in the first round closer together. Continue doing a round at a time until you have the skirt you want.

finishing the bottomFinish The Instrument!

Here are Carrie’s two descriptions for two methods of finishing the skirt and completing the shekere:

Method 1: The first is to have another loop similar to the collar (braided if you used braided) and the same size. Then you tie your ends to the loop so it hangs loosely below the gourd.

Method 2: If your gourd is small you can take an 8-inch string and tie the ends together. This is easier to do with another person holding your shekere for you to tie them together.

colorful kids shekere beadedMaking Music!

If you take a look at the resources below you’ll find many wonderful ways to check out the sound of traditional shekeres or explore music with the ones you’ve created.


Complete Tutorials



tall-and-thin-sekere--PMLinks and Resources

Hear A Shekere

Color a Shekere Online

Carries Crafty Moms Share Blog

Sekere.com – Beaded Sekeres from Master Craftswoman, Sara Fabunmi

Cultural Value of the Shekere, Article By Sara Fabunmi

Make a Classroom Shekere (From A Gourd)

Make a Recycled Shekere (From A Milk Jug)

An Alphabet Shekere Game