Tuesday, June 15, 2010

'Musical mongrels': buzouki, cittern defined by player



by Robin Bullock

(Column originally written for Acoustic Musician Magazine - reprinted on Bullock's website at http://www.robinbullock.com/article02.htm). Following a discussion of Irish bouzoukis in Planxty, Bothy Band, De Dannan, Bullock says this:
However, by this time, these guys and the players who followed in their footsteps were playing newly-made instruments that had flat or arched backs, more like big mandolins than genuine bouzoukis. Some continued to call them bouzoukis anyway, while some took the suggestion of legendary luthier Stefan Sobell and started calling them citterns. (Cittern seems to have been a loose family name during the Renaissance for smallish, double- or triple-course, wire-strung fretted instruments. I played a concert with Helicon a few years back at the Shrine to Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, where I got to see some authentic Renaissance citterns...and they didn't appear to have a lot in common with one another.)
And this:
It seems safe from all of this, and the lack of any standardization of the whole thing, to make the following general statements: If it's a mandolin-like instrument, basically teardrop-shaped, flat- or arched-backed, more or less the size and range of a guitar but with eight or ten (or twelve...all right, all right) paired strings, then it can be called either a bouzouki or a cittern with equal historical
inaccuracy, given that both terms were borrowed from other instruments in the first place. (I suppose a case could be made for "cittern" being marginally less inaccurate than "bouzouki" since "cittern" refers to an instrument family while "bouzouki" is the name of a specific instrument, but let's not split hairs.) ...
And this:
The best story I've heard about all this comes from my pal Beth Patterson, bouzouki (or whatever) player with the New Orleans Irish group the Poor Clares. At ZoukFest (yep, there's a whole week dedicated to these things) in Weston, Missouri last summer, she told me that one night she had just been asked "What's that instrument called?" one too many times, and replied in all seriousness, "It's called a tractor!" The rest of the band picked up on the joke, and were asking for more tractor in the monitors and so on for the rest of the night. Just goes to show: we've got to call it SOMETHING, and given that it's a bit of a musical mongrel, there's no point in getting too hung up with the nomenclature.
Bullock plays acoustic guitar, cittern and mandolin. Click here to hear an exerpt from his version of Carolan's "Fanny Power."

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