How many of Kerala’s many musical instruments are made out of bamboo?

The flute, which is a part of the classical music tradition in India, is the most popular bamboo musical instrument in the country. Not many know, however, that the versatile bamboo has produced several other musical instruments that have been part of Kerala’s folk music tradition for hundreds of years.

The music produced from the bamboo reed now has several practitioners in Central Kerala, all of them determined to reinvent bamboo music and spread the word of its potential.

One among them is Unnikrishna Pakkanar, a bamboo craftsman and musician from Kottanelloor near Chalakkudy. Pakkanar’s family has traditionally practised bamboo craft for several generations. His interest in bamboo music prompted him to experiment with the material and produce different types of musical instruments. “I have crafted around 80 instruments in bamboo,” Mr. Pakkanar says. His group’s performance ‘Mula Padum Ravu’ is what they term Indian folklore fusion music in bamboo instruments. They use bamboo drums, bamboo guitar, xylophone, and several other bamboo instruments to produce a unique sound. Mr. Pakkanar has even composed music for films and has provided the complete background score for filmmaker Leena Manimekalai’s Pennadi.

Mr. Pakkanar, who says he is primarily a craftsman, also hopes to work with government agencies to train more people in bamboo music and craft. “I have no formal training in music. I never needed it. But I have now opened an Institute of Bamboo Music in Kochi. I want to train more people in the art and craft of bamboo music,” he says.

The music of the bamboo reed has another champion in Vayali, an organisation that works to promote the unique culture of Central Kerala. In the organisation’s effort to preserve and perform folk music, the group came across several folk bamboo instruments.

Their unique music, with soft sounds that combined to produce lilting folk tunes, attracted the group and then began their research to study traditional bamboo instruments of Kerala. Besides putting up musical performances through their bamboo orchestra, the group also focuses on researching traditional bamboo instruments, their construction, and musical structure.

“Unlike other instruments, there is a maximum tone that you can get out of a bamboo instrument,” says Pradeep, a member of the Vayali Bamboo Orchestra.

“You can change the tone of music of other instrument by tightening or loosening them. But the tone of a bamboo instrument is set according to its cut,” he says. The sound changes according to the hardness of the bamboo, its weight, age, distance between the nodes, and other factors. Through their bamboo orchestra, Vayali is also making an attempt to preserve the traditional knowledge of crafting bamboo instruments.

“There are local folk instruments like Ona Villu, Mulam chenda, Peekki, and Mulam Thudy that are made of bamboo. We travelled to parts of Kasaragod, Attappady, and Wayanad to learn how these are made and used. We learnt from local elders the techniques of playing the instruments,” says Kuttan, a member of the Vayali bamboo orchestra. The folk and tribal instruments are used by Vayali in their folk music performances. For the bamboo orchestra, the group uses innovative bamboo instruments inspired from bamboo music from all over the world.

The organisation’s objective is to bring bamboo music to contemporary times, while also preserving the social and cultural traditions that surround bamboo music. The influence of customs on traditional music is not lost on Vayali’s members. “There is a tribal group called Mavilayar in Kasaragod. Some of these instruments are part of a performance called Mangalamkali that the tribals put up during weddings,” says Mr. Kuttan.

These social practices too are lost when the traditional music of bamboo fades out, says Vayali founder Vinod Nambiar, who recently secured a junior research fellowship with the Ministry of Culture to research folk music.

Through his research, Mr. Nambiar hopes to document and preserve knowledge of bamboo music and its social aspects. “I hope to use the anthropological aspects of this music to learn more about it. We had a community system in which one community made the instruments and another used it. On what occasions did they perform this music? What are the patterns and structures of the music? Are variations available, and if so, what are the differences?” he says about the scope of his research.

More research is precisely what Kamesh Salam, co-founder of the Bamboo Global Summit, recommends to preserve knowledge of bamboo music.

“Bamboo musical instruments have become museum pieces in India, they are not seen in the village. The flute is part of the classical tradition. But other instruments are fading away,” he says.

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