The Kingdom of Strings

By James Hodson

A note from the editor: The piece you will be reading below has been written by James Hodson, guitarist and composer. James contacted me after seeing Fever Pitch Magazine mentioned in a Facebook group for Melbourne University music graduates and current students.

James is the creator and director of a successful YouTube channel, The Stringdom. Through his channel, James has interviewed masters and inventors of string instruments from all over the world, and had the chance to learn about the stories behind these unique instruments. Currently The Stringdom has over six thousand subscribers, and some videos have amassed over 180,000 views. You can keep up to date with James’ work through The Stringdom Facebook page and YouTube channel. Please enjoy this engaging taster of his work.

– Stella Joseph-Jarecki (stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

It’s not every day that you get to meet the person who invented a musical instrument. I found myself driving through sloping snow-covered hills outside Baltimore in the United States to meet Tim Meeks, the inventor of the Harpejji. It’s an instrument that looks like an elongated chess board, covered with strings running away from the player over a matrix of frets. The instrument benefited from having a sleek design, being instantly appealing to youtube-savvy music makers, and also had the endorsement of the incomparable Stevie Wonder. It was only eighteen months earlier that I’d started interviewing musicians who played interesting string instruments, and I was quickly amazed at the variety, enthusiasm, mastery and generosity that my guests provided.

I was able to travel widely for work, and I wanted to have something to show for the places I’d been, something more tangible and documentary. Growing up in the Western Classical musical tradition, I had only a passing appreciation of folk music and how it worked. The backdrop of suburbia compounded the lack of knowledge of this way of making music: the organic, flexible and dynamic nature of ‘folk music’: the music of the ‘people’. And honestly, it didn’t much interest me. I listened to a lot of different (Western) music, and I was also excited by language, culture, history, and travel. Looking back, it was inevitable that music and international cultures would intersect at some point.

James (left) interviewing Johanna Dumfart, pictured with her raffele. Linz, Austria, 2018. Video interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe1UXhanBrw

My first interview for The Stringdom was prompted purely by my own curiosity. I was in Italy, and I managed to get the number of a mandolin player. The mandolin is a familiar instrument, but I wanted to know more: about the history, about what kinds of music are played on the mandolin in Tuscany, and about the musicians themselves, and their relationship with the instrument and its culture. I reasoned that other people might be interested in the same kinds of interviews, so I set up a camera and microphone to record as I sat down with Mauro Redini, who would be the first interviewee for the then-untitled interview series The Stringdom.

Finland was next on my itinerary. Having been there multiple times and even at some point torturing myself with attempting to learn the language, it’s probably fair to say I learnt more about Finland than most Australians care to know. However, I had no idea about the Finnish national instrument, the kantele. Asking other Finnish friends, it was clear they knew little about it as well. When I sought out Pauliina Syrjälä, one of the modern masters of the instrument, I was truly astounded by her passion and energy for promoting her overlooked instrument.

James (right) interviewing Johannes Geworkian Hellman, pictured with his hurdy-gurdy. Stockholm, 2017. Video interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEk_DbLMbLI

This openness, generosity and evangelical enthusiasm for these instruments was present in every interview I recorded, from Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, to Sri Lanka, India and South America. Most of the musicians were very aware of their inheritance of a tradition, and an identity, such as the saz player Ulaş Özdemir in Turkey. Others were buoyed by the excitement of reinventing the tradition with their own style and their own music, such as cigar box guitarist Joe Jung in New York.

Posting anything on the internet to do with culture and national identity is always inviting a flame war. I quickly realised it was best to find passionate players of interesting string instruments and let them share their own story of their music, their instrument, and how their musical environment works. I’m sure you’ll agree that their energy, and music, is contagious.

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