Do you remember making musical instruments out of junk when you were a kid? Maybe you made a one-string bass with a bucket, a broom handle and a string. Or maybe it was a kazoo made with wax paper and a comb. Or maybe you ran around the neighbourhood every New Year’s eve, banging the family pots and pans.
We learn as kids that music can be made from just about anything, but it seems like a lot of us forget that fact once we start taking piano lessons or pick up a guitar. There are actually a lot of musicians who kept playing their junk instruments as they aged – and became very proficient.
Who says you need to buy a guitar?
Watch Jack White from the White Stripes demonstrate how to make a guitar out of a piece of wood, a couple of nails, a wire and an empty Coke bottle.
Granted, White has nailed a pickup onto his homemade guitar and plugged it into an amp, but you get the idea.
A group of shepherds from the country of Lesotho is releasing an album on Oct. 1 called Junk Funk. The shepherds call their band Sotho Sounds, and they make all their instruments out of junk wood, metal and wire, and whatever else will help them capture the heartbeat of their land.
Here, the shepherds are playing their junk instruments in a video called “Turning Junk Into Funk.”
Car part microphones and scrap metal percussion
There’s a group from Congo called Konono N°1 that plays some very funky grooves using likembés (or mbiras), a version of the thumb piano. Played as an acoustic instrument, it would be difficult to call the likembé a party starter. But once some amplification and percussion is added, Konono N°1 fills the streets with dancers.
The band uses magnets from old car parts to create microphones and pickups, and uses scrap metal, pots and pans and other junk to play percussion. The vocals are sung through a megaphone. The resulting sound has an irresistible warm fuzz, and the music is trance inducing. Having seen Konono N°1 play in Toronto several years ago I can tell you that they are amazing!
Here they are, starting a dance party.
A tin can and the truth
Also from Congo is a fascinating group of musicians that call their band Staff Benda Bilili. The core members are four disabled street musicians who all suffered from polio when they were younger. They get around on elaborately motorized tricycles that they customized with spare parts and junk. The four musicians play guitar and are joined on percussion by a few abandoned street kids, who the men look after.
The group used to get together and jam every day at the zoo in Kinshasa and play for change all over the city. One of the street kids, named Roger, plays an instrument he made himself. If there’s anyone in the world who can pluck a homemade, one-string, tin can instrument better than this teenager, I’ll be amazed.
The whoopee cushion organ
A musician from Toronto named Friendly Rich has invented a few of his own junk instruments over the years. Most interesting is an instrument called the whoopee cushion organ. The organ is made of different lengths of ABS piping, each length having a different pitch. Whoopee cushions are inflated and inserted into each pipe, and hilarity ensues.
I once recorded Friendly Rich demonstrating his organ on a CBC program called Skylarking. Rich does a lot of music work with children and he told us that he knows if a kid has some psychological issues if he doesn’t find the whoopee cushion organ funny.
Watch the trailer for The Friendly Rich Show (without organ).
A Garbage Orchestra
A band from Mexico City called Orquesta Basura (Garbage Orchestra) demonstrates some pretty fun grooves and describes its junk instruments in Spanish.
Fat Albert and the Junkyard Band
No post about junk instruments would be complete without something from Fat Albert and the Junkyard Band. Here they are, with the Fat Boys.
Where to find future junk in the funk
Sotho Sounds will have a new album out Oct. 1, and Staff Benda Bilili has a new album coming Sept. 3. Friendly Rich is doing an eight-year weekly residency at the Cameron House in Toronto every Tuesday night.
What kind of junk instrument do you play, or remember playing when you were younger? Do you know any other musicians making music out of junk? Leave your comments below.
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