Several weeks ago, I became ill from the copious wood dust, much of it exotic and of varying degrees of toxicity, that is a byproduct of making musical instruments.  I’d been using a respirator recently, after having noticed the effects of not wearing one, namely, hacking up lung and gasping for breath, which are a distraction from the job at hand.  So I’ve been reorganizing my shop, installing a dust collection system and air filtration system, and even with these precautions you will not find me out there without a respirator, at least when cutting and sanding is going on.

As a result, I’m not ready to post new pictures right now, but I’ll be back at it soon enough, I’m working on a series of violin scroll headstock instruments, at least one each of mandolin, mandola and mandocello, possibly an octave thrown in.

But I wanted to post something here, just to keep the blog breathing.\

Two Christmases ago, I made a banjo for my son Travis, and he is finally getting around to playing around with it, although he has no experience with any fretted instrument.  ( By way of encouragement, Trav, the learning curve for your first instrument is very flat for a long time, then curves rapidly upward with your comfort level.)

I also made kalimbas for all three kids, out of scraps of 5/4 padauk that were too small for any mandolin parts, but were perfect for kalimbas.  I think they came out pretty nice, although I don’t think any of them have actually played them much.  I use the one I made for myself to test the sound of a mando before the strings are on, by holding it against the body where the bridge will be.   If anyone who stumbles onto this blog is interested, I’d be happy to share the design, which is quite easy, yet elegant, as they appear to be cared out of a solid block.

The source of inspiration for the banjo and the kalimbas was undoubtedly Bela Fleck’s movie Throw Down Your Heart, which I had watched several times the preceding fall If they had watched it, they might have been inspired by the kalimba playing of some of the people in the movie, particularly this woman:

I heard this several times before I realized the lyrics were in English, or pidgin, at least, and although I try to keep things secular around here, I love this song, and it brings to mind Marc Cohn’s great line “Ma’am, I am tonight.”

But there was another song in the movie that moved me so deeply that I experienced a moment of  dharma bum kensho, or glimpse at enlightenment.

Certain music has always served as a meditative shorcut for me, and I first noticed this when I was maybe 14 or so, listening to Dve Brubeck’s Time Out, and finding myself in a transcendental state of awareness and relaxation that was profound, even though I had no context for it  other than that I enjoyed it.  Certain Indian ragas can take me there in no time at all,  other recordings that I won’t go into here also have this effect.

But as I watched Bela’s movie, I drifted off, more like sleep I’m afraid, only to awaken,( but not fully),  to the sound of a voice that seemed to be singing from across thousands of years and across thousands of miles.  In my dream state, I flew on that song, which it turns out, is about a songbird who cries for mankind’s suffering, across the world to India, Japan, Hawaii, New Orleans, Nashville, Ireland, down to Greece and then the Middle East ,and finally across the Sahara to Mali, from whence it originated.  And all along the way, the music in those places stopped, so that it could listen to its Mother.  I woke up invigorated and inspired in a way I seldom have. I don’t expect you to hear the song the way I did, but I wish you could.  The singer, Oumou Sangare, is a superstar in Mali, and to me as well.

So, my shop is nearly sanitized, my lungs are back to 80% capacity, and I’m excited to get back to work on the stuff this blog is really supposed to be about.